Tillerson demands Assad leaves power for Syria peace process
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reaffirmed a long-standing U.S. demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down as part of the war-ravaged nation’s political transition after the defeat of Islamic State in its former stronghold of Raqqa.
“We do not believe there is a future for the Assad regime and the Assad family,” Tillerson told reporters in Geneva Thursday after meeting with Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations envoy for Syria, at the U.S. embassy. “The reign of the Assad regime is coming to an end, and the only issue is how should that be brought about.”
Tillerson’s remarks, which capped a trip to seven countries including Iraq and Afghanistan over the last week, echoed comments frequently made by his predecessor, John Kerry. But there’s no sign that Assad, whose fortunes reversed after Russia intervened in Syria’s civil war on his behalf two years ago, has any intention of stepping down. And the U.S. has even less influence over the outcome now.
With U.S. influence in the six-year-old conflict diminished, Russia, Turkey and Iran have stepped up their presence. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed last month to take coordinated steps to set up and monitor a combat-free zone in Syria.
That followed an agreement by Russia, Turkey and Iran to establish a de-escalation zone in the Syrian province of Idlib and to monitor violations by opposition groups or forces loyal to Assad.
Following his meeting with de Mistura, Tillerson made clear that the U.S. continues to support the stalled Geneva Process of talks between the government and opposition groups.
De Mistura has also called for “genuine negotiations” to end the conflict. The loss of Raqqa as well as the victory over Islamic State fighters in their Iraq stronghold of Mosul has reduced the terror group to a guerrilla force concentrated on the Iraq-Syria border, with outposts in the Philippines and Libya, seeking to inspire terrorist activity around the world.
Geneva was the final stop on a seven-day trip by the top U.S. diplomat. After stopping in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, he made hours-long visits to Afghanistan and Iraq in the same day, and later flew to Pakistan and India.
Stopping in Islamabad for a few hours on Oct. 24, he met with top Pakistani officials to press President Donald Trump’s demand that they do more to more to crack down on terrorist groups that have been allowed safe haven within its territory.
“We have some very legitimate asks and some very legitimate concerns that we need their help addressing,” he said. “If you don’t want to do that or don’t feel you can — we’ll adjust our tactics and strategy.”
The trip challenged Tillerson’s authority and the former oilman’s diplomatic chops. He failed to make headway on resolving Qater’s economic isolation by a four-nation group led by Saudi Arabia. And Iraqi leaders accused him of meddling in their affairs when he commented that Iranian-backed forces should leave the country with the fall of the Islamic State.
A decision to limit his Afghanistan stop to Bagram Airbase rather than meet the country’s leaders in Kabul, the capital, drew rebukes from past officials and Afghan commentators who said it showed a lack of respect for leaders there.
One thing went well for Tillerson: Unlike on his last trip, to China, Trump never contradicted or undercut him on Twitter. Asked about that in Geneva on Thursday, Tillerson said he had met with Trump to preview the trip before he left Oct. 20 and it had gone largely as planned.
“Nothing’s come up because they’ve pretty well gone according to what we’ve expected,” he said. “No real surprises.”