6 Years Later: Obama Gone, Assad Remains; Tillerson: Syrian People Will Decide His Status

By Terence P. Jeffrey | March 30, 2017 | 3:38pm EDT
Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2007. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - Six years after President Barack Obama declared that Syrian President Bashar al Assad needed to “step aside,” Obama is out office, Assad remains in office, Syrian Christians are being targeted for genocide by Assad’s enemy, the Islamic State, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is telling reporters that whether Assad should stay or go will be decided by the Syrian people.

“About President Assad, should he stay or should he go?” a reporter asked Tillerson at a press briefing today in Ankara, Turkey.

“I think the status and the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people,” Tillerson responded.

On Aug. 18, 2011, President Barack Obama issued a written statement declaring that Assad must step down.

“Today, President Obama called for the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, to step aside and took the strongest financial action against the Syrian regime thus far,” said the White House introduction to Obama’s statement.

Obama opened that statement by applauding what he called “the Syrian peoples’ pursuit of a peaceful transition to democracy.”

Obama went on to say that under his leadership the United States would be “pressuring President Assad to get out of the way."

Then-Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2010, the year before President Obama said Assad must step down. (AP Photo)           

"The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way,” said Obama. “His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people. We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.

“The United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria,” Obama said. “It is up to the Syrian people to choose their own leaders, and we have heard their strong desire that there not be foreign intervention in their movement. What the United States will support is an effort to bring about a Syria that is democratic, just, and inclusive for all Syrians. We will support this outcome by pressuring President Assad to get out of the way of this transition, and standing up for the universal rights of the Syrian people along with others in the international community.”

As described by the Congressional Research Service, at about the time Obama was calling on Assad to step down, al Qaeda began operations in Syria against Assad’s government.

“Ongoing violence, primarily but not exclusively on the part of the Syrian government, prompted President Obama in August 2011 to call for Syrian President Asad to step aside,” the CRS said in its Jan. 6, 2017 report “Armed Conflict in Syria:  Overview and U.S. Repsonse.

“Meanwhile,” the CRS report said, “Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq tasked some of its members to commence operations in Syria under the banner of a new group known as Jabhat al Nusra (aka the Nusra Front). In December 2011, the first Nusra Front suicide attacks hit government buildings in downtown Damascus.”

By 2014, three years after Obama had called for Assad to step down, the Islamic State declared a caliphate that included parts of Syria that Assad’s government no longer controlled. Jihadists from elsewhere flocked into the “caliphate” to fight for the Islamic State.

“In February 2014, Al Qaeda formally disavowed the Islamic State because of the group’s interference in Syria and its demands that the Nusra Front recognize IS leadership,” said the CRS report. “After the Nusra Front and other opposition groups forced IS fighters from some areas of northwestern Syria, IS fighters seized vast stretches of territory in central and northeast Syria from local armed groups and in June declared the establishment of a caliphate spanning areas of both Syria and Iraq. Thousands of foreign fighters traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State.”

By 2015, four years after Obama had called for Assad to step down, Russia began expanding its military presence in Syria in its alliance with the Assad regime against the Islamic State and rebel forces “reportedly” backed by the United States.

“Over the summer of 2015,” said the CRS report, “Russia began a gradual buildup of personnel, combat aircraft, and military equipment inside Syria. In September of that year, Russian forces began airstrikes inside Syria, initially focused on opposition targets—including some groups reportedly backed by the United States.

“In 2016,” said the CRS report, “Russia expanded its targeting to include Islamic State forces, although it continued to occasionally target U.S.-backed rebel groups.”

In February 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry told a congressional committee that he was waiting on an ‘additional evaluation” to be done before he would decide if the Islamic State was committing genocide against Christians.

On March 17, 2016, Kerry declared that the Islamic State was in fact committing genocide against Christians and other religious minorities in Syria.

Today, Secretary of State Tillerson held a press briefing in Turkey with Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu.

The last two questions he was asked referenced the Obama administration’s goal to remove Assad from power. Here is how the State Department transcribed the exchange:

Question: Yes, good afternoon. Lesley Wroughton from Reuters. This is a question for Secretary Tillerson. The minister said that the – that you – that the United States has admitted there’s no difference between the YPG and the PKK. Do you believe that you have overcome your differences over this issue and that you can move forward concretely in Syria in the fight to retake Raqqa, given – if you’ve overcome those differences?

The other question I have is the previous administration said that Syrian President Assad must go. Nikki Haley said yesterday that the fight in Syria cannot move forward without the issue of Assad being resolved. How do you see that issue being moved forward as you move more aggressively on Raqqa?

Tillerson: Well, again, I think on the question of how to carry forward with the defeat of Daesh/ISIS in Syria, let there be no mistake, just so we can be clear, there is no space between Turkey and the United States in our commitment to defeat Daesh, to defeat ISIS. Not just in Syria and Iraq, but as members of the greater coalition to defeat Daesh, anywhere Daesh shows its face on planet Earth, they will be confronted by the coalition to defeat them on the battlefield, as well as in the cyberspace and in the social media space.

So in terms of the tactics that are necessary to achieve that outcome, that is why we meet. That is why we meet with our very important partners here, as well as other very important coalition members who are engaged directly in the military activities in Iraq and Syria. So there is more discussion yet to be had regarding the way forward. What we discussed today were options that are available to us. They are difficult options, let me be very frank. These are not easy decisions. They are difficult choices that have to be made. So this has been very good, the conversations today were very frank, very candid, and we will be taking those conversations away. I know the foreign minister and the president and the prime minister, they will consider all of the exchanges we had today, but ultimately, Turkey and the United States will stay together in the fight as part of the broader coalition to defeat Daesh.

Question: About President Assad, should he stay or should he go?

Tillerson: I think the status and the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.

 

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