Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told United Nations officials that the U.S. will stand back and let Russia decide what happens to Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad.
Tillerson told U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres last week during a private State Department meeting that the Trump administration's priority in Syria was limited to defeating the Islamic State, reported Foreign Policy.
Evelyn Farkas, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, doesn't understand why the White House is giving up bargaining chips without receiving anything in return.
“The things we’re hearing coming out of the administration have mainly to do with what the U.S. might offer Russia, and not the other way around,” Farkas said.
Three diplomatic officials familiar with their conversation said Tillerson's remarks signaled that a willingness to give Russia the driver's seat in Syria, and that recent U.S. military actions against Assad's forces were intended to achieve only limited tactical goals instead of weakening the Assad government.
Tillerson's position also showed that Syria's Russia-backed government would likely emerge as the victor in the civil war that has raged for six years, although Assad's fate isn't clear.
Former State Department and Defense Department officials found the Trump administration's shifting goals "confusing," and worried that its lack of coherent, overarching national security strategy would prove a liability when the president met with his Russian counterpart.
“It is one thing to walk away from the problem and say let the Russians take care of it,” Fred Hof, former State Department special advisor for transition in Syria. “It’s another thing to assume you can actually get somewhere policy-wise by relying on the Russians to deliver good results.”
Farkas is concerned that Trump will be walking up to Putin without a clear agenda, and she's worried he'll get rolled by the Russian president -- who has much to gain from the administration's incoherence.
"There’s a danger the president will get outfoxed," she said.
A State Department official told Foreign Policy that the U.S. continues to be "committed to the Geneva process" and supports a "credible political process that can resolve the question of Syria's future" that will eventually resolve Assad's status.
“The Syrian people should determine their country’s political future through a political process,” the official said.
The decision to give up ground to Russia on Assad comes ahead of President Donald Trump's first in-person meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 Summit this week in Hamburg, Germany.
Tillerson has said that Trump asked him to repair U.S.-Russia relations as Congress debates new sanctions against Russia for its alleged interference in the presidential election.