The tide has suddenly shifted in the ongoing fight against Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters Thursday:
"You pick and choose your battles and when we're looking at this, it's about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out...
Do we think he's a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No. What we are going to focus on is putting the pressure in there so that we can start to make a change in Syria...
We can't necessarily focus on Assad the way that the previous administration did...Our priority is to really look at how do we get things done, who do we need to work with to really make a difference for the people in Syria."
In Ankara, Turkey, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson echoed that sentiment, saying the future of Syria "will be decided by the Syrian people."
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) strongly condemned the Trump administration's move, stating:
If the press reports are accurate and the Trump Administration is no longer focusing on removing Assad, I fear it will be the biggest mistake since President Obama failed to act after drawing a red line against Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
To suggest that Assad is an acceptable leader for the Syrian people is to ignore the wholesale slaughter of the Syrian people by the Assad regime. Leaving him in power is also a great reward for Russia and Iran.
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) issued a similar statement:
“I am deeply disturbed by statements today by our Secretary of State and Ambassador to the United Nations regarding the future of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Their suggestion that Assad can stay in power appears to be just as devoid of strategy as President Obama's pronouncements that ‘Assad must go.’ Once again, U.S. policy in Syria is being presented piecemeal in press statements without any definition of success, let alone a realistic plan to achieve it.
Secretary of State Tillerson said today that the longer-term status of Bashar Assad ‘will be decided by the Syrian people.’ But this overlooks the tragic reality that the Syrian people cannot decide the fate of Assad or the future of their country when they are being slaughtered by Assad's barrel bombs, Putin's aircraft, and Iran's terrorist proxies. U.S. policy must reflect such basic facts.
Ultimately, the administration's statements today could lead America's true allies and partners in the fight against ISIS to fear the worst: a Faustian bargain with Assad and Putin sealed with an empty promise of counterterrorism cooperation. Such a policy would only exacerbate the terrorist threat to our nation. Not only would we make ourselves complicit in Assad and Putin's butchery that has led to more than 400,000 Syrians killed and six million refugees, but we would empower ISIS, al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist terrorists as the only alternative to the dictator that the Syrian people have fought for six years to remove.
The Trump administration's deprioritization regarding the ousting of Bashar al-Assad is certainly a departure from the aims of the former administration – at least on paper. President Obama spoke of removing Assad from power and even drew a "red line" in August 2012:
"We have been very clear to the Assad regime … that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized."
As the New York Post reports:
It was universally seen as a threat of massive consequences for Bashar al-Assad if he crossed the line. But when Assad did launch chemical attacks a year later, Obama stalled.
First he tried to get allies on board with a campaign of airstrikes. Britain declined, but France said yes — yet Obama then asked Congress to OK the bombing. Congress signaled reluctance to “buy in” — and then Obama accepted a diplomatic lifeline from Moscow to negotiate a deal for Syria to (supposedly) turn over all its chem munitions.
Obama whiffed, but it ended better than he expected because of Russia's intervention. Syria was accused of using chemical weapons in the years following the red line – specifically chlorine gas. However, little was done aside from stern verbal warnings.
In short, Obama's legacy as it pertains to Syria is a dark one. An estimated 400,000 Syrians dead, as well as millions displaced and on the run. CNN reports that "as of December 2016, 4.81 million Syrians have fled the country, and 6.3 million people are displaced internally."
The war will continue and more Syrians will be killed. The difference now is that Assad and his goons can continue to brutalize their enemies with less direct focus from the United States.
President Trump has a golden opportunity to address one of the Obama administration's most egregious failures, but by the looks of it, he isn't interested in doing so.