US officials have adhered to the «Assad must go» policy ever since the conflict in Syria started in 2011. They have repeatedly demanded the Syrian president’s unconditional resignation. The idea of allowing the Syrians to decide President Assad’s fate pushed by Russia had been scoffed at until Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Turkey on March 30 – he became the first senior official in Donald Trump's administration to visit the country.
Meeting his Turkish counterpart, he said that the future of President Bashar Assad should be left to the people of Syria. Obviously, the US priorities in Syria have shifted away from regime change to the fight against the Islamic State (IS).
The view of the US administration is at odds with European powers, who continue to insist that Assad must step down. Hours after the new American position was announced, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson reiterated at a NATO summit in Brussels that the UK believed Mr. Assad had to go. French UN Ambassador Francois Delattre told reporters on March 30 that «Assad is not and cannot be the future of his country».
It should be noted that the new US stance largely coincides with the position of the Russian government, which has many times emphasized that it’s up to Syrian people to decide the fate of their country.
An analysis of other developments leads to the conclusion that the statement is part of a trend. The Turkish government made a statement that the «Operation Euphrates Shield» had been successful and was finished. Obviously, it was not coincidence that Prime Minister Binali Yildirim made this statement right after a meeting of the country's security council on March 29 – a day before the US State Secretary’s visit and his statement on the change of US priorities in Syria.
Turkey has repeatedly called for the removal of Assad. Last November, Turkish President Erdogan declared that his country’s military in Syria was on a mission to overthrow the Syrian regime. «We entered there to end the rule of the tyrant al-Assad who terrorizes with state terror», he said back then. But in December, 2016, Turkey agreed that the priority in Syria was fighting «terrorism» and not the removal of Bashar al-Assad. Ankara recognized the sovereignty of Damascus in the Moscow Declaration. Russia, Turkey, and Iran – the most influential actors in Syria – announced their readiness to act as guarantors of possible peace agreement to be signed as a result of the Astana talks. This pledge raises the chances for finding ways to end the Syria’s crisis.
During his visit to Turkey, Rex Tillerson showered praise on Turkey’s government and dodged the controversial issue of the United States’ support for the Syrian Kurds.
It’s not the US and Turkey only. There have been calls from some Arab countries, including Egypt and Iraq, to reinstate Syria as a member of the Arab League.
The shift in the US policy paves the way to political cooperation and coordination of military activities. Joining together, the US, Turkey and Russia could gradually move forward within the framework of Astana process and UN-brokered Geneva talks. The cooperation of the main parties involved is key to achieving progress in Syria. The differences between the US and Iran – an influential actor involved in the Syrian conflict – seem to be unsurmountable but Russia could play the role of mediator to bring all pertinent players on board. Russia is perfectly fit to act as an intermediary, the mission nobody else could carry out.
The rebels and the IS in Syria are losing ground everywhere. The moment will come to decide what to do next and the need for coordination of activities will acquire new importance. The US and Syria’s government are not «on speaking terms» but it’s imperative to communicate on political issue and ensure de-confliction. Again, Russia is the only one among actors involved in the conflict fit to do the job.
We have to look further. Even if Assad goes, instability and the terrorist threat will remain. Syria and Iraq are not the only victims, the IS and other extremists target many countries of the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan and even Southeast Asia. Coordination of efforts is the only way to handle the problem. The removal of the condition for Assad’s departure opens new opportunities for cooperation between Russia and the US. With the «Assad must go» no longer a priority, they can achieve progress in Syria to use the experience in other conflicts, where terrorists pose a threat. Hopefully, the issue will be given due attention during the upcoming visit of US State Secretary Rex Tillerson to Russia.