Trump Administration Formally Abandons Regime Change Policy in Syria

Tillerson and Haley say regime change in Syria is no longer the goal, which leaves US policy in the region riddled with contradictions says Vijay Prashad

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Two high-ranking U.S. officials are now saying that over-throwing Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, is no longer a priority for the U.S. government. The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said, “Our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.” And in Turkey, Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson said:

REX TILLERSON: I think the status, and the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, we should note that U.S. policy, for many years, has not called on all-out war, or a campaign of regime change, but rather has insisted on Assad’s eventual departure. With signs of growing cooperation between Russia and the U.S., what prompted these declarations from Haley and Tillerson? And what future will it have on U.S. policy towards Syria?

Joining us now to discuss all of this is Vijay Prashad. Vijay is the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South-Asian History, and professor of international studies, at Trinity College. He’s the author of 20 books including, “The Death of the Nation, and the Future of the Arab Revolution.” Thanks so much for joining us Vijay.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Pleasure.

SHARMINI PERIES: So, Vijay we know that the U.S. policy for a long time, has been at least implicitly, they have abandoned the policy of Russia without Assad — regime change, in other words. But why is the Trump Administration making it so explicit now, in terms of coming out, and stating it so overtly. Is this a concession to Russia?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, look firstly, Sharmini, as you quite correctly said, from 2011 to 2015. There was a consistent policy of the Obama Administration, which is — Assad must go. That was a statement made by Mr. Obama. That was the statement made by Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State. That came from Secretary of State, John Kerry, and from other parts of the Obama Administration.

So, that was quite a focused position of the Obama Administration. And I think, too much was made of the fact that when Mr. Obama set a so-called red line, and you know, there was the use of chemical weapons. At that point, the United States didn’t go for full-scale regime change.

And so, it confused people. They thought maybe the United States’ policy is that Assad should stay. But actually that’s not the case. The policy was fairly consistent through 2012, to 2015; the United States was funneling arms to various groups. It kept attempting to build up a so-called moderate rebel force. So, until about 2015, there was great consistency in the policy of, Assad must go.

In 2015, when the Russians intervened directly, which is to say, when Russian troops entered Syria, the possibility of any kind of regime change operation, or the possibility even of a U.S.-backed moderate force being able to seize Damascus, was basically off the table. And it’s from about late 2015 onwards, that the United States has said things like Assad must go, but has not really had any, you know, ability to put that forward.

So that, you know, in 2016, Secretary of State, John Kerry, when asked, when questioned about why the United States wasn’t using more muscular force against Assad, Secretary Kerry said, “What do you want us to do? Do you want us to go to war against the Russians?” I think that was the best obituary of the Obama position, which is Assad must go.

So, now in one sense the Trump Administration — that’s both Secretary Tillerson who made this comment, I think importantly in Istanbul, in Turkey, and you know, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley — both of them have basically articulated what has been de facto U.S. policy on Syria, since late 2015; which is that there’s a recognition that there’s going to be some kind of long, or protracted transitional period. And that the question of Assad must go, is no longer a precondition to a political dialogue. But, you know, might be an outcome of the dialogue itself.

And that was clear in Tillerson’s statement. When he said, you know, that the Syrian people will determine the future of Syria, what that means is in the political dialogue, the fate of Mr. Assad will be decided. This doesn’t mean that they are of the view with perhaps the Russians, maybe, that Mr. Assad should remain.

So, I think one should clarify that the U.S. policy isn’t Assad should remain, but it’s that the precondition of a political dialogue is no longer publically, that Mr. Assad should go.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, what impact will this declaration, or precondition, have on the negotiations that are going on between the Syrian government and the rebel groups?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, it’s important to know that the armed Syrian rebels and, you know, the above-ground political group that comes to Geneva on their behalf, when they were at Geneva for the so-called, Geneva Five talks, their spokesperson, just about ten days ago, quite straight-forwardly said, “What is needed now, is the Americans back at the table.”

You know, in that sense the aboveground, or the political branch of the Syrian rebels have found themselves without a major backer behind them. You know, Saudi Arabia, it’s in the middle of economic crisis; over-extended in Yemen; unable to really believe that its objectives in Syria will be met. Then the Gulf Arab states themselves, have pulled back alongside Saudi Arabia. Turkey, you know, wracked by its contradictions, has sort of walked away from this opposition group, even though many of them come from the Muslim Brotherhood tradition, which is shared by the government of Turkey.

So, they felt very sort of isolated by the great powers at the table, and he publically said that the United States must back us. Now, I think this statement from the Trump Administration is a direct reply to Mohamed Sabra, who made these comments at Geneva Five. I mean, they basically said, “We’re not going to have your back, you are entirely isolated.”

Which is going to put pressure on them when the next round of conversations take place, whether they will go, indeed to Kazakhstan, to Astana, to have the conversation which is brokered by Turkey, Iran and Russia; or when they return to Geneva, whether they’ll have, perhaps some more conciliatory position. I think, Sharmini, what is important here to see, that sadly, this is going to just make the government in Damascus feel like it doesn’t need to negotiate at all with them, because they’re entirely isolated.

I think this is an error. I think Damascus should take the high road here, and see this as an opening, to expand some of their dialogue with this section of the armed opposition.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And Vijay, we know that Hezbollah in Iran, have been instrumental in helping Assad maintain power, and regain control of certain Syrian territory. How can we expect Israel to respond to this situation, now that the U.S. is tilting, or has stated these policies about Assad?

VIJAY PRASHAD: This is a very important question you’ve asked. And just before we get to Israel, I’d just like to point out that Ambassador Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, wasn’t as equivocal about the question of Assad. She just said yesterday that, “Mr. Assad is a hindrance.”

This is an important statement that she repeated, you know, when she mentioned that the policy isn’t necessarily planned to go; she continued to say he’s a hindrance. And she said that we have to get rid of all terrorists from Syria, including Iran. You know, it’s of course, a talking point from Israel — to talk of Iran as a terrorist country, and its fighters as terrorists. Of course the incoherence here, is that the United States is relying on Iran and Iranian proxies in Iraq, to fight against ISIS around Mosul.

So, there’s a great incoherence in the Trump Administration, when it on the one side says that, you know, the terrorists inside Syria must go, and she mentions Iran, doesn’t mention ISIS. I found that quite interesting and bewildering, at the same time. It should be said that she had just come off the stage from the APEC meeting in Washington D.C., where she said, “We’re going to not allow Israel-bashing to happen any longer.”

So, this might have been part of that flavor, where this anti-Iranian thing, you know, was at the tip of her tongue and that’s why she had to say it. I think the Israelis should be, you know, somewhat worried; their strategic interests as they have articulated it, was basically to have… to prolong the chaos in Syria, so that none of the adversaries come to power in Damascus. And so that, you know, in some ways they can stand out and say, “Everybody, don’t look at what we’re doing in the West Bank, or in East Jerusalem; you should concentrate on Syria.”

I mean, I think that they should worry about this a little from their own standpoint. On the other side of it, I think for the region, you know, it’s very important for people to recognize that whatever their political standpoint, that peace in Syria has to be a priority. And if this move by the Trump Administration, which is really a move by the American establishment, to recognize the reality that has been there since September of 2015 — if this is going to facilitate peacemaking in the region, I think that’s all for the better.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, and Vijay just finally, can you give us some sense, or a further sense of how the Gulf countries are responding to this?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you know, as I said at the outset that the Saudis are in an economic crisis, and I don’t think they have the stomach, given the very bad hand they have dealt themselves, in Yemen — I don’t think they have the stomach to pursue a policy in Syria.

That has been clear when we saw that the head of the Saudi proxy group Jessem Islam, Mohammed Alloush went to Astana as the leader of the armed opposition, to sit around the table with the Syrian government for the first time, in a meeting brokered by Iran, Russia and Turkey. It was really interesting that the Saudis gave the green light for their proxy to lead that delegation to Astana in December, when the first major ceasefire of recent times was negotiated.

So, Saudi Arabia seems to be looking for an exit. Qatar as well, has recently negotiated with Iran, being the two brokers of a series of transfers of people from besieged towns; this happened just a week ago. So, when I see Qatar now at the table, with the Iranians, trying to settle things in the direction of peace; and you know, this has been…

This is a very positive and good direction. Now, it doesn’t come up at the Arab League level — when the Arab countries sit around the table; because there, there is so much, you know, difference of opinions — such great difference of opinion around Syria, that you don’t see these small realities — Saudi Arabia allowing their proxy to the meeting; Qatar sitting with Iran, trying to make besieged towns breathe a sigh of relief.

This doesn’t become apparent at the level of the Arab League; where the League is split between about half the members who believe that Assad should stay, and half the members who continue to believe Assad should go, but don’t really want to do anything about it.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Vijay, I thank you so much for joining us today and look forward to your report next week.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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