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US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stressed the need for honesty in internal government discussions on Thursday as he declined comment on a two-page internal memo he wrote on Syria policy, described as critical by people familiar with its contents.
The memo from Hagel to White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice was first reported by the New York Times, which said he warned President Barack Obama’s Syria policy was in jeopardy due to its failure to clarify its intentions toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Two people familiar with its contents, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters they agreed with the description of the memo by the Times as critical.
Asked about the memo, Hagel told a Pentagon news conference: “We owe the president and we owe the National Security Council our best thinking on this.”
“And it has to be honest and it has to be direct,” Hagel said, without citing areas of disagreement.
Obama faces criticism at home and abroad for looking at the crisis in Syria almost exclusively through the threat of the Islamic State, while failing to address attacks by Assad’s forces that undermine the opposition that Washington will ultimately need.
The Obama administration’s position is that Assad must go but it hopes to defer that challenge until later to focus on Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
Hagel suggested that the future governance of Syria needs to be at the core of American actions, now centered around air strikes against Islamic State targets and plans for training Syrian opposition forces.
“The fighting can go on for years and years to what end? It’s in our interest not to have an unstable Middle East,”Hagel said, stressing the need to manage current threats while focusing on “some longer term strategies and objectives.”