Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the U.S. is prepared to allow Russia to take the lead in negotiations over the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad so that Washington can focus on eradicating ISIS from its strongholds in Syria.
Tillerson told U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres during a private Department of State meeting Wednesday that the U.S. will yield to Russia on questions about Assad’s future, and that the Trump administration’s priority remains defeating ISIS, three diplomatic sources familiar with the exchange told Foreign Policy Monday.
The secretary of state also reportedly assured Guterres that recent U.S military action in Syria is not part of a larger policy of regime change. Washington’s goals in Syria are limited to deterring future chemical weapons attacks by Syrian government forces and protecting U.S.-backed elements fighting ISIS, reports Foreign Policy. (RELATED: US Marines Rain Fire Down On ISIS In Syria [VIDEO])
Tillerson’s position relaxes the more aggressive posture the Trump administration has assumed in previous statements.
After Assad perpetrated a chemical weapons attack against civilians in April, Tillerson announced that “steps are underway” to build a coalition that would force the Syrian president to step down. Tillerson made similar comments at the G7 summit in Italy, promising that Assad’s reign was “coming to an end.” (RELATED: Rex Tillerson Says ‘It Is Clear’ Bashar Al-Assad Must Go)
Those remarks supported the goals of a 2012 U.N.-brokered Geneva Communique, which called for a transitional government with members of the regime and the opposition. The agreement assumed that Assad would not be part of whatever power sharing arrangement emerged from negotiations.
In recent statements, however, the State Department has backed away from regime change and has focused instead on the narrower, U.S.-led campaign to defeat ISIS.
“The reason the United States is involved in Syria is to take out ISIS,” State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Wednesday, the same day Tillerson met with Guterres. “That’s why we care and that’s why we are there.”
Tillerson’s remarks to the U.N. leader reflect the political reality that Assad will likely be the victor in Syria’s civil war, now grinding along in its sixth year. They also come as President Donald Trump gears up for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit in Germany. Tillerson may see easing pressure on Assad, Russia’s strongest ally in the Middle East, as a way to carry out Trump’s order to normalize relations between Washington and Moscow. (RELATED: Tillerson: Trump Wants To ‘Make Progress’ On Russia Despite Political Cost)
“The president’s been clear to me: do not let what’s happened over here in the political realm prevent you from the work that you need to do on this relationship and he’s been quite clear with me … that we might make progress,” Tillerson said at news conference in June.
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