Syrian people do not want Assad as leader: U.S. envoy to U.N

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States does not believe that the Syrian people want President Bashar al-Assad as their leader any longer, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Monday.

Haley was asked about U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s remarks in the Turkish capital Ankara on Thursday, in which he said that Assad’s status would be decided by the Syrian people.

She said it does not mean the United States will accept Assad participating in future elections.

“It’s that we don’t think the people want Assad anymore; we don’t think that he is going to be someone that the people want to have,” Haley told a news conference to mark the U.S. presidency of the U.N. Security Council for April.

“We have no love for Assad. We’ve made that very clear. We think that he has been a hindrance to peace for a long time. He’s a war criminal. What he’s done to his people is nothing more than disgusting,” she said.

Tillerson and Haley on Thursday drew criticism for playing down a long-standing U.S. goal of pushing Assad to leave power to help end the six-year-long Syrian civil war.

Haley told a small group of reporters on Thursday: “You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”

She then told ABC News on Sunday that “Assad is always a priority” and the United States wants to bring him to justice.

A crackdown by Assad on pro-democracy protesters in 2011 led to civil war and Islamic State militants have used the chaos to seize territory in Syria and Iraq. Half of Syria’s 22 million people have been uprooted and more than 400,000 killed.

The administration of former President Barack Obama, in its later years, was focused on reaching a deal with Russia that would eventually see Assad go, though it also shifted its focus to the fight against Islamic State militants.

The White House said on Friday that the U.S. focus is on defeating Islamic State militants.

“Our goal is to do what we need to to defeat ISIS (Islamic State). I don’t know that our goal is to talk to Assad in doing that,” Haley said on Monday.

“Now that could change and the administration could think otherwise, but right now Assad is not our No.1 person to talk to,” said Haley, adding that the United States supports U.N.-led peace talks.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Lisa Shumaker