The Trump administration made clear on Friday that it intends to shift away from the previous two administrations’ stances on human rights in the Middle East, in order to prioritize the U.S. national interest by focusing on counterterrorism efforts in the region.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer stated that the United States understands the “political reality” of the situation in Syria. This corroborates earlier statements on Thursday by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the “longer term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people” and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley that “our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”
In 2011, President Obama famously declared that “Assad must go.” He consequently armed the Syrian opposition and threatened the governing regime with a military intervention that was ultimately blocked due to heavy opposition from Congress. Six years later, President Assad remains in power and a renewed Russian-backed offensive has increased the odds that he could emerge from the war victorious.
Predictably, neoconservative Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, vehement advocates of military action against President Assad, slammed the Trump administration’s move.
The Trump administration also clarified its stance on President Sisi’s regime in Egypt on Friday, with the New York Times stating that the White House “would no longer allow human rights issues to become a public point of conflict with Egypt.”
Although Egypt, unlike Syria, was historically a close ally of the United States, it drifted towards Russia in the wake of the Obama administration’s strong criticism of the 2013 military coup and the subsequent repression of opposition groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in the North African nation. Like Syria, Egypt is a secular dictatorship currently engaged in fighting the Islamic State, which has a heavy presence in the Sinai peninsula. President Trump is set to meet Sisi to discuss security cooperation next week. Sisi had previously indicated an admiration for Trump, stating on CNN last September that he had “no doubt” that Trump would make a strong leader.
While Turkey, a NATO member state, has long been one of the most vocal state sponsors of Islamist opposition groups operating in Syria, cooperating closely with the United States in their shared objective of regime change, relations soured in 2016. President Erdogan publicly accused the U.S. of “looking after” dissident cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Turkey accuses of involvement in the attempted military coup, as well as supporting terrorists in Syria, including the Islamic State and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, both of which have conducted attacks against Turkey in recent months. As a consequence, it too has lately moved into the Russian sphere of influence, with Russian aircraft supporting Turkish troops in their advance against the Islamic State.
During his visit to the country on Thursday, Secretary Tillerson was said by Bloomberg to have “eschewed any mention of Turkey’s slide toward authoritarianism…or its dubious status as the the world’s leader in jailing journalists.”
On the campaign trail, Trump often expressed disdain for the notion of criticizing the internal affairs of other nations, regarding it as hypocritical. When asked by the New York Times in July 2016 to comment on the domestic situation in Turkey, he stated that “when the world sees how bad the United States is and we start talking about civil liberties, I don’t think we are a very good messenger.” He took a similar tone when asked on MSNBC’s Morning Joe about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s alleged persecution of journalists in December 2015, noting that “our country does plenty of killing also.”