The United States has declared that overthrowing Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, is no longer a key strategy in Syria.
The Obama administration repeatedly declared that removing Assad from power was an important policy goal. However, there have been suspicions that Trump’s administration was looking in another direction. This was confirmed in New York on Thursday, as Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, told journalists that the U.S. had priorities other than getting Assad out of power.
In a dig at the previous administration’s approach, Haley told a group of reporters that, “…our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.” Instead, Haley said Washington’s focus would be to “get things done.” In order to do this, she explained the U.S. will work with powers such as Turkey and Russia to reach a political settlement. She also stated that the U.S. planned to prevent Syria from maintaining its status as a “safe heaven for terrorists.” These statements conform with the Trump administration’s focus on defeating ISIS. This is a short-sighted approach, which does not take into account all the different players involved, and the difficulty of singling out ISIS.
Haley is not the only official who has spoken of this departure from an anti-Assad stance. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently spent several hours conferring with President Erdoğan in Turkey. Tillerson stated publicly in Ankara on Thursday that President Assad’s long-term future is not being determined by foreign officials, but instead “will be decided by the Syrian people.”
The fact that the U.S. has now officially conceded its goal of toppling Assad is worrying for Syria. Washington has been courting Russia’s assistance in Syria for a while, with Trump repeatedly offering praise to Putin during his election campaign. Denouncing an attempt to overthrow Assad has moved U.S. strategy closer to Russia’s. This suggests a turn towards a more militaristic approach. Perhaps the U.S. will join Russia in lending monetary and military support to Assad’s regime. Syria does not need more airstrikes and troops on the ground to end this war. Also, a strategy that allows the rule of a militaristic dictator does not help the situation. Haley admitted to the UN that Assad was a “hindrance” in Syria. This does not seem to be an appropriate condemnation of an undemocratically elected dictator, who has been charged with war crimes, and leads a government that the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria found to be “responsible for acts that amount to extermination as a crime against humanity.”
Choosing to move away from a policy focused on overthrowing Assad puts the Trump administration at odds with European powers and its previous allies – the Syrian opposition. Monzer Makhous, a spokesman for the opposition, reacted angrily to this shift in U.S. policy. He said, “The opposition will never accept any role for Bashar al-Assad at any phase.” Several U.S. officials, Republicans, and Democrats, have also expressed dissatisfaction with this policy shift. Senator John McCain described this move as a “self-destructive and self-defeating path.”
The idea that the Syrian people will be able to decide the fate of Assad in their country overlooks the fact that thousands of them are currently being slaughtered. It also reveals U.S. strategists hold a false assumption that Syria is a fair and equal democracy. These individuals assume it will be easy for Syrians to organize an election once this war is over. It seems that the U.S. government is using immediate action over long-term strategy.