“Trying to fight ISIS while pretending that we can ignore the Syrian civil war that was its genesis and fuels it to this day is a recipe for more war, more terror, more refugees, and more instability,” Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Thursday night.
By any measure, the latest Trump administration statements on Syria codify a remarkable reversal of American foreign policy. President Barack Obama outlined a starkly different approach in August 2011 when he declared that Mr. Assad had lost legitimacy, and urged him to relinquish power.
“We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way,” Mr. Obama said then, in a statement that was coordinated with European allies. “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
That pronouncement came at a time when Mr. Obama and some members of his inner circle thought Mr. Assad’s hold on power was shaky. But as Mr. Assad dug in his heels, Mr. Obama’s policy for Syria was marked by a chronic gap between ends and means.
The White House was slow to embrace a plan from David H. Petraeus, the former CIA director, and Hillary Clinton, Mr. Obama’s first secretary of state, to train and arm the moderate Syrian opposition. And while the Obama administration was not prepared to use airpower to protect the Syrian opposition, Russia began to send its warplanes to Syria in September 2015 to shore up the Assad government and help it reclaim lost ground.
During his final year as secretary of state, John Kerry sought to enlist Russia’s support for a diplomatic solution that would quell the fighting and provide for a political transition in which Mr. Assad would eventually leave power. But President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia decided instead to help Mr. Assad enlarge the territory he controlled. With Russian air support, the Assad government retook Aleppo in December.
The Assad government has also drawn support from Iran’s paramilitary Quds force, as well as Iranian-backed militias from Iraq, Shiite fighters from Afghanistan and Hezbollah, and the Lebanese militia.
During the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump said that he while he did not like Mr. Assad, he was glad the Syrian leader was “killing ISIS.” Since taking office, however, Mr. Trump has shied away from forging a military alliance in Syria with Russia, let alone with Mr. Assad. Instead, the administration’s single-minded focus has been to help Syrian fighters oust the Islamic State from the northern city of Raqqa, which the extremists have declared the capital of their self-styled caliphate.
Still, major questions loom, including which political authorities in Syria will control Raqqa after ISIS fighters are evicted and how the international community might establish safe zones, or what Mr. Tillerson recently called “interim zones of stability,” to stem the flow of refugees. Another important question is whether it might be possible to negotiate a broader political accommodation for Syria; despite his gains, Mr. Assad lacks the military manpower to control the entire country.
None of those answers had been provided in recent days by administration officials, though they have signaled that the American policy is no longer to press for a new transitional government that does not include Mr. Assad.
“Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes,” Ms. Haley told reporters on Thursday, according to Reuters. “Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No.”
“What we are going to focus on is putting the pressure in there so that we can start to make a change in Syria,” she added.
Mr. Tillerson was more vague during a Thursday appearance in Ankara, Turkey, saying only that “the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”
Mr. Spicer suggested on Friday that much of the potential leverage over Mr. Assad was now gone, “since there is not the opposition that existed last time.” At the same time, he said, there is “a need to de-escalate violence and to have a political process through which Syrians will decide their own political future.”
Frederic C. Hof, director of the Middle East center at the Atlantic Council and an adviser on Syria to Mrs. Clinton when she was secretary of state, asserted that tough questions on Mr. Assad’s political fate could not be deferred forever.
“The implications of not trying diplomatically to neutralize Bashar al-Assad are serious,” he said. “The reason we have ISIS is because of Assad’s political survival strategy of using mass homicide. The point is not only to kill ISIS, but also to keep it dead. And you are not going to get there as long as Assad is in power.”