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Friday, March 31

Saudis oppose new U.S. stance on Assad. Where to do the French and British stand?

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced yesterday that the American government was no longer wedded to removing Syria's President from power:
"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."  [Reuters]
Haley's statement was backed up on the same day by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who told reporters after a meeting with his Turkish counterpart that the U.S. could accept Assad as the leader of Syria and that the “longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”  

This doesn't mean Donald Trump wants to be buddies with Bashar al-Assad. From the Reuters report on the U.S. volte face:
On Wednesday, Haley accused Russia, Iran and the "Assad regime" of committing war crimes. She has also said the United States supports the U.N.-led Syria peace talks, that Syria could no longer be a "safe haven for terrorists" and that it was important "we get Iran and their proxies out."
It does mean that the Trump Administration is now officially set on a collision course with the faction that controls the U.N.-led peace talks, no matter what Haley says about supporting them. 

From Sputnik's March 30 report, Saudi-Backed Syrian Opposition Remains Adamant "Assad Must Go"
The High Negotiations Committee (HNC) backed by Saudi Arabia strongly believes Syrian President Bashar Assad should not play a role in Syria’s future, Monzer Makhous, a member of the opposition group, said Thursday.
[...]
"Our position remains unchanged, Assad must go," Makhous told reporters at a press briefing in Geneva, Switzerland.
Speaking alongside Makhous, HNC member Fatah al-Atassi said the Committee believed Assad should not be on Syria’s future transitional government and questioned the reasoning behind Tillerson’s statement.
Returning to the Reuters report:
Syrian opposition member Farah al-Atassi said the State Department and the White House were sending contradictory messages on Syria and should start leading and not focus exclusively on fighting Islamic State.
It doesn't sound to me as if they're sending contradictory messages; it sounds as if Atassi is hearing what he wants to hear. Moving along:
Britain and France reinforced their stance on Assad earlier on Thursday.
French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre told reporters: "Assad is not and cannot be the future of his country."
Reuters didn't quote the British Ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft. I can't find any mention of a statement he made yesterday about Assad; doesn't mean he didn't make one but I'd be surprised if Rycroft contradicted the British government's position, which underwent a big change this year. From the Guardian, January 26:
The UK accepts that Bashar al-Assad should be allowed to run for re-election in the event of a peace settlement in Syria, Boris Johnson has said, in a dramatic reversal of the British policy stretching back to the early days of the civil war that the president must go.
Speaking on the eve of Theresa May’s meeting with Donald Trump in Washington, the UK’s foreign secretary acknowledged that the inauguration of the new US president meant all sides needed to rethink their approach to Syria.
“It is our view that Bashar al-Assad should go, it’s been our longstanding position. But we are open-minded about how that happens and the timescale on which that happens,” Johnson told the Lords international relations select committee.
“I have to be realistic about how the landscape has changed, and it may be that we will have to think afresh about how we handle this. The old policy, I am afraid to say, does not command much confidence.”
The official Foreign Office view has long been that Assad can stay only for a short period as part of a transitional government. In the days after he was appointed as foreign secretary in July last year, Johnson insisted that Assad had to go. But the defeat of the rebel opposition in Aleppo, Trump’s determination to rebuild relations with Russia, and the Turkish rapprochement with Moscow has changed the equation.

“We have been wedded for a long time to the mantra that Assad must go, and we have not been able at any stage to make that happen, and that has produced the difficulty we now face,” Johnson said.
[...]
That also leads me to wonder about the statement from the French envoy that Reuters quoted. Saying that Assad "is not and cannot" be the future of Syria isn't necessarily continuing to call for his immediate ouster. Given that the French presidential election is very soon it could be that Amb. Delattre's remark yesterday just represented diplomatic treading of water.

We'll know soon enough exactly where the French and British governments now stand regarding Assad. The big question is whether they'd be prepared to stand in outright opposition to the House of Saud.   

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