Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday that “the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end,” taking a firmer stance on Syria and aligning himself with statements from U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley – after the two top diplomats seemed to take a different view toward the Syrian regime’s future.
He made the fresh comments shortly before arriving in Moscow, for the first trip to Russia by a Trump Cabinet official. He is in for a tense visit, as the U.S. prods Russia to split with Bashar al-Assad, and Russia blasts the U.S. over last week’s Syria missile strikes.
In the wake of those strikes on an airbase controlled by Assad, who allegedly carried out a deadly chemical weapons attack, Tillerson had said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that “we are hopeful” about navigating a “political outcome in which the Syrian people, in fact, will determine Bashar al-Assad’s fate and his legitimacy.”
Yet Haley, on CNN, more bluntly said they expect regime change and “there’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime.”
As Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and others noted an apparent disconnect in such statements, Tillerson seemed Tuesday to align himself more closely with Haley, as he spoke to reporters in Italy before boarding the plane to Moscow. While the secretary did not speak directly of regime change, as Haley had, he telegraphed to the Kremlin that that is his view as well.
“It is our policy for a unified Syria that is governed by the people of Syria. … It’s clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end. But the question of how that ends, and the transition itself, could be very important, in our view, to the durability, the stability inside of a unified Syria,” Tillerson said. “… But I think it is clear that we see no further role for the Assad regime longer term, given that they have effectively given up their legitimacy with these type[s] of attacks.”
Despite the fact that Tillerson is believed to have spent more face-time with Russian President Vladimir Putin than any other American with the exception of Henry Kissinger, a meeting between them later Tuesday is not on the schedule. Instead, Tillerson will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Tillerson’s message to Lavrov will be to pose the question of whether Moscow is looking to shift from its current alliance with the Assad regime – along with the Iranians and Hezbollah – to one with the U.S. and other Western and Middle Eastern countries.
“Russia has really aligned itself with the Assad regime, the Iranians and Hezbollah,” he said Tuesday. “Is that a long-term alliance that serves the Russians’ interest? Or would Russia prefer to realign with the United States, with other Western countries, and Middle East countries who are seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis?”
Russia was another subject where, until now, Tillerson had been seen as lagging behind his own U.N. ambassador, whose comments on the Putin government have taken a sharper edge for weeks.