A gap is widening between the Trump administration and European allies over the future of President Bashar al-Assad and how to end the six-year war in Syria.
While U.S. officials have shifted the focus away from Assad having to relinquish power, European leaders remain adamant he has no future as ruler of Syria. His departure, they say, remains a crucial part of any solution to a conflict that has left an estimated 470,000 dead.
Following Tuesday’s toxic gas attack on a town in northern Syria, the worst chemical weapons attack in the war since mid-2013, European leaders are intensifying their rhetoric. On Tuesday, Britain’s Theresa May called “on all the third parties involved to ensure that we have a transition away from Assad.”
Photo Gallery: Aftermath of gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun
European politicians gathered for an international conference hosted by the European Union in Brussels on Syria drew a link between what seems to be the use of a more deadly nerve agent than seen in previous claimed chemical weapons attacks, and the Trump administration’s shift on Syria.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Assad’s future was up to the Syrian people to decide, while the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said removing him was no longer a Washington priority.
On Monday, just hours before the gas attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, Haley hardened her rhetoric, referring to the Syrian leader as a “war criminal” guilty of “disgusting” actions against his people.” She said Syrians “don’t want Assad anymore.”
In the wake of the chemical weapons attack, U.S. officials in Washington did not publicly indicate any likely shift in administration policy. The White House and U.S. State Department condemned the attack as “heinous,” dubbing it a likely war crime.
But officials placed the emphasis on the need for Russia and Iran, Assad backers, to do something. Tuesday, the White House press secretary didn’t outline any punitive steps in response to an attack the administration says was carried out by the Assad regime.
Russian, Iranian influence
Tillerson demanded Tuesday that Moscow and Tehran “exercise their influence over the Syrian regime and to guarantee this sort of horrific attack never happens again.” He added that “Russia and Iran also bear great moral responsibility for these deaths.”
On Wednesday, Moscow reiterated its denial the Assad regime was responsible for the attack that has left close to 100 dead, according to local activists, and more than 400 injured. Russia's Defense Ministry said in a statement it believed a rebel “terrorist warehouse” was hit by a conventional airstrike from Syria's military, causing the release of “toxic substances.”
The Defense Ministry claimed chemical weapons were being stored for use in neighboring Iraq. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konoshenkov said,“On the territory of the depot there were workshops, which produced chemical warfare munitions.”
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said "all the evidence" he had seen in relation to the incident "suggests this was the Assad regime who did it in the full knowledge they were using illegal weapons in a barbaric attack on their own people."
Johnson added he did "not see how a government like that can continue to have any kind of legitimate administration over the people of Syria."
Focus on Assad
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said, “There is one thing which cannot happen, that a dictator who committed horrible crimes in the region remains untouched.”
The European Union’s foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini also said she could see no way Assad can remain as Syria’s ruler. “It seems completely unrealistic to believe that the future of Syria will be exactly the same as it used to be in the past," she told reporters in Brussels.
But it is unclear what the Europeans can or would be willing to do without U.S. support, according to analysts.
They note that European influence on shaping international policy on the Syrian conflict is waning, despite the fact Europe is the largest provider of humanitarian aid in Syria. This week’s EU co-hosted international conference on humanitarian assistance to Syria has attracted minimal participation from the United States, Russia and Turkey.
Instead of sending its foreign minister, Russia is only represented at the gathering by its EU ambassador, Vladimir Chizhov. Washington has sent the State Department’s under-secretary for political affairs, Thomas Shannon. That contrasts with last year when then Secretary of State John Kerry attended.
Analyst Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute in Washington, says he believes Damascus has taken note of the Trump administration’s policy shift when it comes to Assad’s future and that may have shaped the decision behind launching Tuesday’s attack.
“Assad also knows full well that the U.S. is increasingly distancing itself from any consideration of intervention in Syria, so what has Assad got to lose?” he argued. “If all he suffers is a few days of international condemnation, then he comes out of things just as secure as he was beforehand."