Shifting the long-standing US policy, the Trump Administration has indicated its acceptance of Syria’s President Assad remaining in power.
The announcement came in a statement by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and a brief but pointed comment by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his meetings in Turkey.
Haley told reporters on Thursday:
You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.
Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No. What we are going to focus on is putting the pressure in there so that we can start to make a change in Syria.
President Obama first said in August 2011, five months after the start of the Syrian uprising, that Assad should depart. Haley drove home the point that the position had been abandoned:
We can’t necessarily focus on Assad the way that the previous administration did. Our priority is to really look at how do we get things done, who do we need to work with to really make a difference for the people in Syria.
In Ankara, Tillerson was even blunter in his signal, saying Assad’s future “will be decided by the Syrian people” — the same phrase used by the Syrian President to reject any political transition in which he gives up power.
Neither Haley nor Tillerson offered any clue to an approach towards the conflict between the regime and Syria’s opposition and rebels. The UN Ambassador said on Wednesday that the regime and its major allies Russia and Iran had committed war crimes, adding that it was important that “we get Iran and their proxies out”.
However, any focus on Thursday was on tactics against the Islamic State and “terrorists”, a likely reference to the Islamist bloc Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham which is fighting Assad. Haley’s declaration that Syria could no longer be a “safe haven for terrorists” was amplified by a “senior Trump administration official”:
[This is] a measure of just realism, accepting the facts on the ground….Assad is never going to have sufficient force to reassert control over the whole country….Our focus is on defeating ISIS and Al Qa’eda and preventing Syria from being used as a terrorist safe haven.
Republican Senator John McCain, a prominent supporter of the Syrian opposition and rebels, soon responded:
I am deeply disturbed by statements today by our Secretary of State and Ambassador to the United Nations regarding the future of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Their suggestion that Assad can stay in power appears to be just as devoid of strategy as President Obama’s pronouncements that “Assad must go”. Once again, U.S. policy in Syria is being presented piecemeal in press statements without any definition of success, let alone a realistic plan to achieve it.
Secretary of State Tillerson said today that the longer-term status of Bashar Assad “will be decided by the Syrian people”. But this overlooks the tragic reality that the Syrian people cannot decide the fate of Assad or the future of their country when they are being slaughtered by Assad’s barrel bombs, Putin’s aircraft, and Iran’s terrorist proxies. U.S. policy must reflect such basic facts.
Ultimately, the administration’s statements today could lead America’s true allies and partners in the fight against ISIS to fear the worst: a Faustian bargain with Assad and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin sealed with an empty promise of counter-terrorism cooperation. Such a policy would only exacerbate the terrorist threat to our nation.
GOP Senator Lindsay Graham echoed that the Administration’s line is “the biggest mistake since President Obama failed to act after drawing a red line against Assad’s use of chemical weapons”.
TOP PHOTO: Poster of Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo city, December 2016