Expanding Iranian influence after the looming defeat of Islamic State poses a larger threat to Syria’s future than the regime of President Bashar Assad remaining in power there, top Syrian opposition leaders said Thursday.
On a day when U.N. investigators and a chemical weapons watchdog concluded the Assad regime was behind an April sarin nerve gas attack that killed over 90 people, Abdulelah Fahad, former secretary-general for the Syrian Opposition Coalition, told a Washington press briefing that even an uneasy detente with Mr. Assad and his Russian military patrons in post-Islamic State Syria was preferable to allowing Tehran to expand its sphere of influence in the country.
The future of a stable Syria after the defeat of Islamic State will be solidified “starting with [international] economic development and local governance,” he said.
U.S. and coalition leaders are exploring a plan to create a 1,200-man-strong local security force inside Raqqa, the recently captured “capital” of Islamic State’s caliphate, Syrian Interim Government President Jawad Abu Hatab said during the same press conference Thursday.
The Syrian opposition forces have struggled to remain relevant as Mr. Assad’s Russian-backed forces have scored a number of battlefield successes and the U.S. and its allies have advanced on Islamic State.
But while some analysts say Mr. Assad appears to be consolidating power in Damascus, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson on Thursday delivered one of the Trump administration’s strongest statements to date saying the Syrian leader eventually must go.
“We do not believe there is a future for the Assad regime, the Assad family,” Mr. Tillerson said in a Geneva, Switzerland, press conference. “The reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, and the only issue is how should that be brought about,” he said Thursday after a whirlwind diplomatic trip that included stops in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Mr. Tillerson met in Geneva with U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, who is poised to restart stalled peace talks between opposition forces and the Assad regime next month.
The Trump White House has been wary on calling for Mr. Assad’s ouster despite taking direct military action against the regime after the April chemical attack. American warships targeted a Syrian air base suspected of launching the chemical weapons attack.
But top administration officials at the Pentagon and State Department still declined to call for Mr. Assad’s removal, which had been a key tenet of the Obama White House’s Syria strategy.
Mr. Tillerson said the U.S. does not see Mr. Assad’s exit as a prerequisite for a peace deal, but U.S. officials argue Syria will never be able to attract the aid and funding it will need to rebuild after six years of brutal civil war so long as Mr. Assad is in power.
Regime forces, backed by Iranian paramilitaries and Russian air power, effectively broke the Syrian opposition late last year by retaking the rebel stronghold of Aleppo. The victory forced rebel commanders to agree to a cease-fire brokered by Moscow and Tehran, and into negotiations to end the six-year civil war.
Tehran will look to expand its influence in the critical Deir el-Zour region, the site of the fighting over Islamic State’s final stronghold in Syria, Mr. Fahad said.
Deir el-Zour “is the most important target for the Iranians” due to its proximity to the Iraqi border, where thousands of Iranian-backed Shia militias known as Popular Mobilization Units, or PMUs, are growing in strength and influence.
The U.N. report into the chemical weapons attack, obtained by The Associated Press, said that leaders of the expert body are “confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017.”
Syria and Russia, its close ally, have denied any attack and strongly criticized the Joint Investigative Mechanism, known as the JIM, which was established by the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to determine responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria, according to the AP.
• This article was based in part on wire service reports.