National Security

Tillerson Makes Big Break From Obama’s Syria Policy

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated the U.S. could accept President Bashar al-Assad as the leader of Syria at a meeting with Turkey’s foreign minister Thursday.

Tillerson told reporters the “longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.” The statement reverses official U.S. government opposition to Assad, who is responsible for the deaths of nearly half a million of his own citizens. “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” former President Barack Obama said in 2011.

Tillerson’s statement could also indicate that the U.S. is acquiescing to Syrian peace negotiations spearheaded by Russia, Iran, and Turkey. These negotiations exclude the U.S. and its Gulf Arab allies, who also have significant interests in Syria. The peace talks are likely part of a broader Russian attempt to asserts itself geopolitically, and appear a peer competitor to the U.S.

Bruce Jones, vice president of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, explained to the Washington Post in 2015 that calling for Assad to go is a mistake in U.S. policy. “If you call for Assad to go, you dramatically drive up the obstacles to a political settlement. If you’re not insisting on him leaving there are more options. If you say Assad must go as the outcome of a settlement he has the existential need to stop that settlement,” he explained.

The peace talks appear to center on a plan to divide Syria into three de-facto states with Assad at the helm. A leaked copy of the plans in December indicated the three sub-states would be regionally autonomous and nominally remain under the power of a federal administrative system. This federal system would retain Assad in the beginning, before a less divisive figure took the helm. Assad’s religious sect, Shiite Alawites, would remain in charge of the federal system and have their own zone of influence under the terms of the deal.

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