Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave a strong indication Friday that the Trump administration is taking a tougher stance against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Tillerson spoke to reporters at the White House as President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin engaged in their first ever face-to-face meeting as leaders of their respective countries in Hamburg, Germany.
“Our position continues to be that we see no long-term role for the Assad family or the Assad regime,” he said in response to a question from a reporter.
As Tillerson addressed the reporters, reports came of the outlines of a ceasefire deal in the southwest of Syria between Russia and the United States. Tillerson seemed to emphasize that this agreement with the Russians did not indicate an acquiescence to Assad, a widely reputed Russian ally, continuing in power:
And we have made this clear to everyone — we’ve certainly made it clear in our discussions with Russia — that we do not think Syria can achieve international recognition in the future. Even if they work through a successful political process, the international community simply is not going to accept a Syria led by the Assad regime.
Tillerson went on to explain the reasoning for the conclusion Assad cannot lead a post-war Syria:
And so if Syria is to be accepted and have a secure — both a secure and economic future, it really requires that they find new leadership. We think it will be difficult for them to attract both the humanitarian aid, as well as the reconstruction assistance that’s going to be required, because there just will be such a low level of confidence in the Assad government. So that continues to be the view.
Tillerson declined, however, to offer a timetable or suggest a method by which Assad might be removed from power:
And as we’ve said, how Assad leaves is yet to be determined, but our view is that somewhere in that political process there will be a transition away from the Assad family.
Friday’s comments are consistent with a continuing shift in State Department statements on the issue of Assad’s acceptability. In March, Tillerson seemed to entertain the possibility of his continuing in power if he had the backing of the Syrian people.
By April, however, buoyed by a suspected use of chemical weapons by the Syrian military of which Assad is commander-in-chief, Tillerson made calls for his ouster reminiscent of the prior administration. Specifically, he said that Russia had “failed” in its role of holding their surrogate Assad to the terms of international agreements on chemical weapons.