State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters on Thursday that the Trump administration expects Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to exit politics at some point during the nation’s civil war, telling a reporter the Assad problem “will take care of itself.”
Nauert was responding to a question from a reporter regarding Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s remarks on Thursday in Switzerland that Assad must vacate the presidency and allow Syria to become a democratic nation. Assad claims to be the legitimate president of Syria due to his victory in a 2014 election in which most of Syria, consumed by war, could not participate.
Last week, Nauert had refused to categorically reject the idea of Assad supporters or government cronies gaining high-ranking positions in the new government of Raqqa, formerly the “capital” of the Islamic State (ISIS). “We have continued to say that whoever eventually would run local governments should be representative of the people, should embody and believe in fundamental human rights and protection of those civilians in the area,” Nauert said.
She denied that this stance contradicted Tillerson’s assertion that the United States would not support a prolonged Assad presence in Syrian politics. “The Secretary has consistently said that we do not see a Syria in the long run with the Assad regime running it. He’s been very clear about that,” she said on Thursday.
“We do not believe that the Syrian people will want Bashar al-Assad, the killer of women, of children, of innocent civilians, over and over again, who gassed his own people … to continue running its country,” she continued. “We believe that that process will take care of itself through a political process when we can finally get there.”
Tillerson spoke alongside U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura in Geneva on Thursday, asserting that the United States supported the U.N.-brokered peace process but rejected any further Assad rule in Syria.
“The United States wants a whole and unified Syria with no role for Bashar Assad in the government,” Tillerson said. “The reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, and the only issue is how that should be brought about. … We do not believe there is a future for the Assad regime, the Assad family.”
Assad has enjoyed significant support from the Russian military and Iran’s hybrid military-terrorist paramilitary infrastructure, which includes Shiite militias and groups like the terrorist organization Hezbollah. Tillerson rejected the idea that Iran was a major military factor in Syria on Thursday.
“I see Iran as a hanger-on. Iran has not been successful; the Russian government has been more successful,” he said.
While Russia used the Islamic State’s rapid rise to prominence in the region as an excuse for entering the Syrian civil war, its military aid has largely involved support of pro-Assad political elements in areas with a minimal ISIS presence, like Aleppo.
Russia has also supported Assad on the international stage, most recently vetoing a proposal to continue investigating Assad for chemical weapons use at the U.N. Security Council.
Assad’s sustained position as the nation’s dictator and military successes by Iran and Russia have silenced some voices that had demanded his ouster vocally when his rule appeared more imperiled.
“Assad has emerged victorious in the battle,” Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said this month. “I see that there is now a long line of countries applauding and wooing Assad, including Western (and) moderate Sunni Muslim (states).”
None has made a more dramatic about-face than Turkey, whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, repeatedly demanded Assad step down. A year ago, Erdogan announced that Turkish troops would enter the fray in Syria “to end the rule of the tyrant al-Assad who terrorizes with state terror” and “not for any other reason.”
Last week, the Turkish government announced a new military operation in Idlib province in which Turkish troops would cooperate with Russia against pro-American Syrian Kurdish militias, pivotal allies in the fight against ISIS.