As­sad’s fate in hands of Rus­sians, US tells UN boss

The Star Early Edition - - WORLD -

US SEC­RE­TARY of State Rex Tiller­son told UN Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral An­to­nio Guter­res dur­ing a pri­vate State Depart­ment meet­ing last week that the fate of Syr­ian leader Bashar al-As­sad now lies in the hands of Rus­sia, and that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pri­or­ity is lim­ited to de­feat­ing Is­lamic State, ac­cord­ing to three diplo­matic sources fa­mil­iar with the ex­change.

The re­marks of­fer the lat­est stop on a bumpy US pol­icy ride that has left in­ter­na­tional ob­servers with a case of diplo­matic whiplash as they try to fig­ure out whether the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will in­sist that As­sad step down from power. Nearly three months ago, Tiller­son had in­sisted that As­sad would have to leave of­fice be­cause of his al­leged use of chem­i­cal weapons.

Tiller­son’s as­sur­ances to Guter­res sig­nalled the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s in­creas­ing will­ing­ness to let Rus­sia take the driver’s seat in Syria, throw­ing geopol­i­tics to the way­side to fo­cus on de­feat­ing IS.

He also sig­nalled that US mil­i­tary ac­tion against As­sad’s forces in re­cent months is in­tended to achieve only lim­ited tac­ti­cal goals – de­ter­ring fu­ture chem­i­cal weapons at­tacks and pro­tect­ing US-backed forces fight­ing IS in Syria, not weak­en­ing the As­sad gov­ern­ment or strength­en­ing the op­po­si­tion’s ne­go­ti­at­ing lever­age.

Tiller­son’s po­si­tion re­flects a recog­ni­tion that Syria’s gov­ern­ment, backed by Rus­sia and Iran, is emerg­ing as the likely po­lit­i­cal vic­tor in the coun­try’s six-year-long civil war. It also marks a fur­ther re­treat from the 2012 UN-bro­kered Geneva Com­mu­nique – signed by Rus­sia, the US, and other key pow­ers – which called for the es­tab­lish­ment of a tran­si­tional gov­ern­ment with mem­bers of the regime and the op­po­si­tion. The Geneva pact, ac­cord­ing to the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and other West­ern al­lies, was to re­sult in As­sad’s de­par­ture from power.

A State Depart­ment of­fi­cial in­sisted that the US re­mained “com­mit­ted to the Geneva process” and sup­ported a “cred­i­ble po­lit­i­cal process that can re­solve the ques­tion of Syria’s fu­ture. Ul­ti­mately, this process, in our view, will lead to a res­o­lu­tion of As­sad’s sta­tus”.

“The Syr­ian peo­ple should de­ter­mine their coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal fu­ture through a po­lit­i­cal process,” the of­fi­cial added.

The de­ci­sion to cede ground to Rus­sia on the ques­tion of As­sad’s fu­ture comes on the eve of US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s first face-to­face meet­ing next week with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin on the side­lines of the G20 Sum­mit in Ger­many.

It also comes at a time when the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is seek­ing to re­pair ties with the Krem­lin de­spite a se­ries of scan­dals that have plagued the White House since Trump’s elec­tion.

Tiller­son said ear­lier this month that Trump tasked him with re­pair­ing the bro­ken US-Rus­sia re­la­tion­ship. The sec­re­tary of state has also cau­tioned Congress that new sanc­tions against Rus­sia for its al­leged role in in­ter­fer­ing in the US elec­tion could un­der­cut ef­forts to co-op­er­ate with Moscow on Syria.

“The pres­i­dent asked me to be­gin a re-en­gage­ment process with Rus­sia to see if we can first sta­bilise that re­la­tion­ship, so it does not de­te­ri­o­rate fur­ther,” Tiller­son said dur­ing a visit to New Zealand in early June. From there, he said, he would “be­gin to re­build some level of trust” with Moscow.

Tiller­son ear­lier made it clear he had lit­tle in­ter­est in us­ing US mus­cle to force the Syr­ian leader from of­fice. As­sad’s fu­ture, he said in late March, “will be de­cided by the Syr­ian peo­ple”. Tiller­son re­versed course in April, say­ing “steps are un­der way” for an in­ter­na­tional ef­fort to oust As­sad. For­eign Pol­icy

PIC­TURE: REUTERS

A por­trait of Syria’s Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad on a new Syr­ian 2000pound ban­knote. It is the first time he has ap­peared on the na­tional cur­rency.

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