President Trump's team expects Syrian President Bashar Assad to be forced from power, notwithstanding Russian support for his regime.
"We do not envision Bashar al Assad being in control of Syria from Damascus [long-term]," Brett McGurk, the U.S. official overseeing counter-Islamic State operations in the region, told reporters at the State Department. "Whether that is through a constitutional process or an election or some combination, that is very important."
That's a notably confident prediction, given previous Trump administration statements and policies. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently announced a ceasefire agreement in southern Syria monitored by Russian forces in the country in support of Assad. Then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer conceded "with respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept" back in March. But McGurk pointed to another "reality:" Syria's need for long-term humanitarian aid.
"It's just reality: Syria, by World Bank estimates, [it will require] more than $200 billion to reconstruct Syria," McGurk said. "It's probably many multiples of that. And the international community is not going to come to the aid of Syria until there is a credible political horizon that can lead to a credible political transition in Syria. That is the reality."
That statement might forecast an Assad ouster leveraged by the softest forms of international power, but Russia has a strong interest in ensuring that any successor to Assad will maintain their military bases in the country. "Tillerson told the U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres during a private State Department meeting [in June] that the fate of Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad now lies in the hands of Russia, and that the Trump administration's priority is limited to defeating the Islamic State," according to Foreign Policy.
But McGurk emphasized that the United States still wants to see a United Nations-brokered political process that allows expatriate Syrians — a "diaspora" that tends to support the U.S. intervention, in the face of Russian opposition — to have a say in the future of the country.
"In Geneva, [there are] very important talks about a future constitutional process, about future international monitored elections in which all Syrians -- including the diaspora -- can vote," McGurk said.