Are Trump and Tillerson Letting Syria's Assad Off the Hook?

Syrians who fled Raqqa
Internally displaced Syrian people who fled Raqqa rest in a camp in Ain Issa, Syria, April 1. Frederic Hof writes that there appears to be full understanding by the Trump administration of the Assad regime’s subordination to Iran for the sake of Hezbollah. Rodi Said/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Atlantic Council site.

Syria-watchers, including members of the United States Senate, reacted critically to statements by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley about the Trump administration's position on the status of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In Ankara on March 30, Tillerson commented that Assad's long-term status "will be decided by the Syrian people." On the same day, in New York, Haley stated "our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out."

Has the administration decided on a major American policy shift? The view here is that it has not.

In August 2011, then–U.S. President Barack Obama declared that Assad—already deep into a political survival strategy of civilian mass homicide—should step aside. The president and his White House team thought Assad was a goner: Getting the commander-in-chief on the record and on "the right side of history" before Assad was swept from the stage was the driving force behind the "step aside" statement. The White House view was that the Assad problem would solve itself.

Once it became clear that Assad was going nowhere—that he was successfully militarizing the conflict in a highly sectarian manner—the White House chose to regard the president's words as advisory in nature.

In the summer of 2013—after Assad had violated Barack Obama's redline dictum on chemical weapons use for about the 14th time (resulting in over 1,400 civilian deaths)—an operationally paralyzed president backed away from the use of force, claiming it was not "his" redline.

Knowing how vital Assad was to Iran's ability to support Lebanon's Hezbollah, President Obama was extremely reluctant to rock the Assad boat in Syria while pursuing and even after achieving a nuclear accord with Tehran. For the president, the nuclear agreement was everything.

Related: Russia and Iran are scrapping over Assad's corpse. Where's Trump?

Still, the Obama administration's accommodation of Iran in Syria did not prevent it from speaking loudly and incessantly about the Assad regime's war crimes and its lack of legitimacy. In Washington, New York, Geneva and elsewhere, senior administration officials were never at a loss for words in decrying the regime's depredations.

Over time, however, the striking disparity between word and deed earned the contempt of adversaries and the pity of friends. In the context of Assad's Syria, the administration was willing to sacrifice American credibility through inaction, while trying to adorn the historical record with eloquent statements of horror and outrage.

But Iran, a fully invested accomplice in Assad's mass murder, always came first. And now at least one former administration official dismisses credibility as "chimerical."

The new administration does not yet have a fully formed Syria policy. Its predecessor, at least with respect to Assad, had no strategy beyond manipulative communications and empty-handed, leverage-free diplomacy. A glass-half-full interpretation of recent administration statements would be that the era of the empty, insincere and misleading gesture as the hallmark of American policy in Syria is over.

Related: Will Hezbollah remain in Syria forever?

Tillerson's statement surely is a place-holder: Obviously, it should be Syrians who decide Assad's long-term future. This is, after all, a cardinal tenet of the June 30, 2012, Final Communique of the Action Group on Syria: the document that remains the essential basis for peace talks in Geneva.

At the level of practicality, however, a terrorism-promoting, endlessly corrupt regime will be imposed on Syrians if Iran and Russia remain fully invested and essentially unopposed in keeping Assad, the family and the entourage in place.

Even if an American national security strategy is not in place, there appears to be full administration comprehension of the Assad regime's utter subordination to Iran for the sake of Hezbollah.

Haley's statement likewise seems more a reflection of the current state of play than an articulation of developed policy. Indeed, in the Security Council on March 30, she said, "Using starvation as a weapon of war is unconscionable. The Council should strongly condemn the Syrian regime and its allies for their immoral denial of essential goods and medicine as a tool to force their own people to surrender.

We must work together to put a stop to these offenses immediately." It was not the first time she has criticized Assad regime lawlessness, albeit not with the florid rhetoric of her predecessor.

Speaking later with reporters, Haley noted,

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.

She might have avoided much of the resulting controversy by making no reference at all to the Obama administration, whose "focus" on Assad was empty, useless and ultimately serving, albeit inadvertently, the interests of Iran, Russia and Assad himself.

Perhaps she could have said something along the lines of,

Our operational priority is to put an end to ISIS in eastern Syria. Is Assad a hindrance to killing ISIS and keeping it dead? Yes, he is. But our first task is to erase from Syria a group dedicated to murdering Americans, Turks, Western Europeans and Syrians.

Once that mission is accomplished we can consider what needs to be done, and by whom, about a murderous clique whose actions have made Syria safe for criminal elements beside itself and whose assaults on civilians have wrecked Syria and, in the process, endangered allies and friends of the United States.

It would not, in short, be proper to conclude from the Tillerson and Haley statements that the United States has abandoned an Obama administration quest to rid Syria of Assad. There was no such quest in any practical, meaningful sense of the word.

The new administration seems to have no illusions about the Assad regime and its connection to Iran and to the explicitly terrorist Hezbollah. Yet it is, for the moment, "all about ISIS," and policy answers to broader questions about Syria likely must await the onset of a coherent and productive interagency process.

Ideally, senior officials of the Obama administration will refrain from criticizing their successors for having "abandoned" their "focus" on neutralizing the principal killer of the Syrian state. Urging the new administration instead to sustain humanitarian assistance to Syrians and to welcome Syrian refugees to our national family would be far more appropriate.

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.