Marking a drastic change in American foreign policy, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer suggested on Friday that the US will no longer press for the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Instead, Spicer asserted, the Trump administration’s foremost priority is to defeat the Islamic State and eventually help set up “a political process through which Syrians will decide their own political future”.
Other White House officials have also been echoing similar sentiments recently. Secretary of State Rex W Tillerson said during an appearance in Turkey: “The longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”
According to Reuters, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki R Haley, also said on Thursday: “Do we think [Assad is] a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No.”
American foreign policy towards Syria during Obama's presidency was geared towards ousting Assad. The US, at the time, even trained and armed the moderate Syrian opposition to fight against Assad, according to the New York Times.
However, with help from Russia, the Assad government not only resisted Obama’s efforts but grew steadily stronger. In December 2016, Assad’s forces recaptured all of the rebel-held parts of Aleppo, marking a significant victory for the Syrian government.
Under these changing circumstances, the Trump administration is apparently choosing a different approach as Spicer’s comments on Friday indicate. “With respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept,” he said.
The NYT article also mentions that Trump, during the presidential campaign, had said that while he did not like Assad, he was glad the Syrian leader was “killing ISIS.”
Although since taking office Trump has not forged a military alliance in Syria with Russia or with Assad, neither is he opposing them. Instead, the US is focused on helping Syrian fighters drive out the Islamic State from their capital in the northern city of Raqqa.