In a stark contrast to statements from the Barack Obama administration, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Thursday that the future of the Bashar al-Assad regime “will be decided by the Syrian people.”
Tillerson made the remarks at a joint press conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in response to a reporter’s question about Assad.
“The previous administration said that Syrian President Assad must go,” the reporter asked. “Nikki Haley said yesterday that the fight in Syria cannot move forward without the issue of Assad being resolved. How do you see that issue being moved forward as you move more aggressively on Raqqa?”
After Tillerson explained that the U.S. faced “difficult choices” when it came to Syria, the reporter followed up.
“About President Assad, should he stay or should he go?” the reporter asked.
“I think the… longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people,” Tillerson said.
On Thursday, Reuters reported the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley also signaled that the Trump administration will focus first on defeating the Islamic State in Syria.
“You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” Haley told reporters in New York City.
“Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No,” she said. “What we are going to focus on is putting the pressure in there so that we can start to make a change in Syria.”
Just this week, Cavusoglu said Turkey’s purpose in Syria has always been to defeat ISIS.
“From the beginning, our target has been very clear,” Cavusoglu said. “We have been in Syria to defeat Daesh and to clear many cities in Manbij from Daesh and make those areas Daesh-free or terrorist-free zones.”
Turkey has repeatedly called for the removal of Assad and, in November, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan asserted that Turkish troops entered Syria to remove “the tyrant Assad who terrorizes with state terror,” but has softened his rhetoric in recent weeks as Turkey has worked with Russia to broker a peaceful end to the six-year-long civil war in Syria.
“The increasingly close cooperation on Syria between Russia and Turkey marks a sharp turnaround for the two nations, which have also coordinated their operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL also known as ISIS) armed group in Syria,” Aljazeera reported this month.
“Russia has an active military presence in Syria in support of Assad’s forces, while Turkey, which backs anti-Assad groups, launched a military operation in August to create a safe zone along its border inside Syria,” Aljazeera reported.