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