This week, the United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism became the fourth independent exploratory body to confirm that the Syrian regime was directly responsible for an April 4 attack on civilians using Sarin nerve gas. More than 80 people died in that attack, “the majority of whom were women and children,” according to the UN’s Syria inquiry. Another 500 were seriously wounded in what had become the disturbingly regular use of chemical weapons on Syrian battlefields by the Assad regime. “We’re not surprised,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert. “We will pursue justice for the Syrian people.” The State Department has a funny way of showing that.
When it comes to how it views Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s legitimacy and his role in Damascus, the State Department has been about as clear as saltwater taffy. According to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, “the United States wants a whole and unified Syria with no role for Bashar al-Assad in the government.” At least, that’s his assessment this week.
When Tillerson became America’s chief diplomat, he assumed that role in the administration of a president who campaigned on the idea that Bashar al-Assad was America’s natural ally in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria (he’s not). Given his conspicuous deference to the strongman in Moscow, it was only natural that Trump would see Vladimir Putin’s vassal in Syria as a potential friend. Perhaps Tillerson was trying to convey what he assumed was Trump’s ambivalence toward Assad when he said in March that “the Syrian people will decide” the “longer-term status of president Assad.”
Given that “the Syrian people” had spent the better part of the previous seven years engaged in a pitched civil war over that very question, this was interpreted as a practical endorsement of the Assad regime’s legitimacy. That didn’t sit well with America’s Sunni allies in the region one bit, and Tillerson was soon forced to insist that he was only making an objective assessment of the facts on the ground.
“Assad’s role in the future is uncertain,” the secretary of state said in April. “Clearly, and with the acts that he has taken, it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.” As if any more confirmation were needed that Tillerson’s comments were aimed at anti-Assad Sunni Arab states, which had risked quite a bit in supporting covert efforts to undermine the Assad regime over the years, Tillerson insisted that there had been no change “relative to our military activities in Syria today.”
But a change was coming. In July, Foreign Policy reported that Tillerson had told United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres that Assad’s fate was in Russian hands. Considering that Russia has mounted a sustained military intervention in the region with the primary aim of shoring up Assad’s faltering position, it was unlikely that Moscow would move against their servant in Damascus. It turns out, though, that Tillerson’s confession wasn’t just empty talk. That same week, reports revealed that Trump had ordered his national security adviser and CIA director to scrap an Obama-era program that funneled weapons and aid to explicitly anti-Assad rebel groups in Syria.
The move came amid increasingly dangerous confrontations between the U.S. armed forces and its proxies and Russian forces, so perhaps Washington thought that a unilateral concession could de-escalate tensions. Or perhaps the Trump administration never truly believed that it was its role to put pressure on Assad to surrender his authority. Whatever the case, it was a gift to Putin and Assad and to the various Islamist factions in Syria, who surely gained a stream of new recruits now that there was only one anti-Assad game in town.
Perhaps the State Department doesn’t value its credibility, or maybe it is receiving conflicting signals from the White House. For whatever reason, though, State functionaries have given those in the region no reason to believe them when they say that Assad has no role to play in Syria’s future. American diplomats should be better stewards of their integrity. It’s all they’ve got.