US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may have signalled a radical shift in US policy, when he appeared to say at a press conference in Turkey that the issue of Syrian President Assad’s future was one for the Syrian people to decide.
Tillerson’s exact words are reported to have been
I think the … longer term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people
This is the identical formula to the one used by the Russian government since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011. However it is not the one previously used by the US government or by the US’s Western and Arab allies. They on the contrary have insisted since August 2011 that President Assad must go as part of any peace settlement of the conflict.
At this point an immediate note of warning is needed. Tillerson is not only a new Secretary of State but a highly inexperienced one, who is still operating without a full team behind him in the State Department. It is entirely possible that his comment was simply a slip, and that no particular weight should be attached to it, and that formally US policy remains what it has been since August 2011, which is that President Assad must go.
However it is beyond question that the Trump administration has spoken little about President Assad going since it took over in January, and removing President Assad from office seems far less important to this administration – which is focused instead overwhelmingly on fighting Jihadi terrorism and ISIS – than was the preceding Obama administration.
There is also the fact that some people in Washington must now realise that with Russia in effect backing Assad, with the Syrian government now in control of all of Syria’s main cities, and with the Syrian army on a seemingly unstoppable offensive against ISIS and the other Jihadi groups, talk of President Assad being forced to step down is no longer realistic.
As a pragmatic hardheaded former businessman accustomed to dealing with the world as it is rather than as he wants it to be, Tillerson could be one of these people, and it is likely that some at least of the soldiers Donald Trump has surrounded himself with are also.
If so it could be that even if Tillerson’s comment is a slip, it is a slip which betrays what is actually now the prevailing thing within the Trump administration, which will gradually become policy.