Meeting with his Turkish counterpart in Ankara on Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was noncommittal on the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as UN Ambassador Nikki Haley detailed the dictator’s crimes but said removing him was no longer a U.S. priority.
In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday, Haley accused Assad of committing war crimes against the Syrian people.
“Together with Russia and Iran, the Assad regime has destroyed each and every hospital in East Aleppo. Every one. A quarter million people have left to suffer. These are war crimes,” Haley said. “And Assad’s crimes, of course, have not been confined to Syria. Syrian human rights violations have led to the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. What was once a brutal crackdown on peaceful protestors is now a six-sided conflict and a great power proxy war.”
On Thursday, after a “sobering” UN Security Council briefing on the “devastating humanitarian toll of the war in Syria,” Haley said in a statement that when Assad “is not attacking civilians with bullets and barrel bombs, the regime uses red tape and bureaucracy to delay and hinder access” to humanitarian aid. “As a result, countless numbers of people have died. Using starvation as a weapon of war is unconscionable. The Council should strongly condemn the Syrian regime and its allies for their immoral denial of essential goods and medicine as a tool to force their own people to surrender.”
The UN Ambassador, according to Reuters, told reporters that “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,” she said. “What we are going to focus on is putting the pressure in there so that we can start to make a change in Syria.”
At a Thursday media appearance with Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Tillerson was asked about Haley’s comments. “I think the status and the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people,” the secretary of State said before ending the press conference.
The Obama administration at times said that Assad must go, without taking action on the demand — as well as infamously dropping the “red line” set by President Obama on Assad’s use of chemical weapons. In December 2015, though, then-Secretary of State John Kerry said at a press conference that “with respect to the question of Assad and the timing, I think the answer is … it is not clear that he would have to ‘go’ if there was clarity with respect to what his future might or might not be.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he was “deeply disturbed” by Tillerson and Haley’s statements, “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,” McCain said. “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 Putin sealed with an empty promise of counterterrorism cooperation.”
McCain predicted that “such a policy would only exacerbate the terrorist threat to our nation.”
“Not only would we make ourselves complicit in Assad and Putin’s butchery that has led to more than 400,000 Syrians killed and six million refugees, but we would empower ISIS, al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist terrorists as the only alternative to the dictator that the Syrian people have fought for six years to remove,” he added. “Trying to fight ISIS while pretending that we can ignore the Syrian civil war that was its genesis and fuels it to this day is a recipe for more war, more terror, more refugees, and more instability. I hope President Trump will make clear that America will not follow this self-destructive and self-defeating path.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) added that the Trump administration could be making “the biggest mistake since President Obama failed to act after drawing a red line against Assad’s use of chemical weapons.”
“To suggest that Assad is an acceptable leader for the Syrian people is to ignore the wholesale slaughter of the Syrian people by the Assad regime. Leaving him in power is also a great reward for Russia and Iran,” he said. “…This would be crushing news to the Syrian opposition and to our allies throughout the Middle East. I fear it is a grave mistake.”
In Russia, Alexei Pushkov, a senator in Putin’s United Russia party and former deputy of the Duma, tweeted that the Tillerson and Haley pronouncements on Assad were “a recognition of his power.”