American Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told reporters Thursday that the United States’ priority in Syria is no longer the ouster of dictator Bashar al-Assad, echoing statements by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that Assad’s fate is in the hands of the Syrian people, not the White House.
“You pick and choose your battles,” Haley said on Thursday, emphasizing Assad’s long record of human rights abuses against Syrian citizens, including the repeated use of chemical weapons. “And when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.” Her comments follow similar statements regarding Assad delivered to the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday.
At that appearance, Haley dismissed the U.S. as the main actor responsible for Assad’s future. “I’m not going to go back into should Assad be in or out, been there, done that, right, in terms of what the U.S. has done,” she said. “But I will tell you that he is a big hindrance in trying to move forward, Iran is a big hindrance in trying to move forward.” Iran and Russia are Assad’s strongest allies, and both have contributed significantly to strengthening his hold on power against a variety of rebel groups and jihadi organizations.
While noting that Assad did not appear to her as “somebody you can even work with” given his record of using chemical weapons against civilians, Haley prioritized the importance of a stable Syrian state: “If we don’t have a stable Syria, we don’t have a stable region and its only going to get worse. It really is an international threat right now and we have got to find a solution to it.”
Tillerson, in a press commitment in Turkey, made similar statements Thursday. Tillerson spent the day in Turkey meeting with high-level officials in Ankara, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish government has repeatedly demanded Assad’s ouster.
Asked by a journalist whether he believed Assad should relinquish power, Tillerson responded, “The longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”
As a presidential candidate, President Donald Trump signaled that he would approach Assad differently than the Obama administration had. “Why are we knocking ISIS, and yet at the same time, we’re against Assad?” Trump asked during an interview with CNN in 2015. “Let them fight, take over the remnants, but more importantly, let Russia fight ISIS, if they want to fight them. Let them fight in Syria.”
“Why do we care?” Trump asked of the fight between Assad and Syrian rebels.
While Assad opposes the Islamic State terrorist group – ISIS is a Sunni organization and Assad is an Alawite Shia – he has focused most of his military efforts against moderate Syrian rebels in northern regions where ISIS has little to no representation.
Assad has called Trump’s attitude towards Syria “promising” and supported a Trump executive order to limit refugee flows from Syria until officials can implement an adequate vetting process to keep terrorists out of U.S. territory. He has, however, questioned whether Trump “can deliver” and remained cautious in his approach to the White House.
Trump’s attitude towards Assad is a stark departure from his predecessor, however, who relied heavily on the bully pulpit for challenging Assad while taking little action on the ground to stop his abuses.
“We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” President Barack Obama said in 2011, the first of many instances in which he called for Assad to give up his presidency. Obama famously issued a “red line” to Assad, warning that any use of chemical weapons against civilians “would be totally unacceptable.”
“If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable,” Obama said a year later.
Obama failed to remove Assad from power; on the contrary, with Russia’s help, Assad is arguably enjoying more stability than he has since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War.
In his final network interview as president, Obama said he did not regret failing to keep his commitment to challenge Assad on the use of chemical weapons. “I think it was important for me as president of the United States to send a message that in fact there is something different about chemical weapons,” he argued.