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Trump officials broadcast president’s plan for Syria: wait for global response

HR McMaster, Nikki Haley and Rex Tillerson defend president’s missile strikes, emphasizing Russia’s role in ‘the solution’ and new priority to depose Assad

By Alan Yuhas in San Francisco / The Guardian / April 9, 2017


In world capitals, at the United Nations and in military briefings, leaders spent the weekend trying to deduce what doctrine might lie behind the first direct attack by the US on the forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. On Sunday, the White House articulated Donald Trump’s message: your move, world.

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Three of Trump’s top officials delivered that message to the public, careful to sidestep the president’s long history of contradictory statements and his love of a “flexible” negotiating position. In doing so, they sketched a foreign policy as reactive and mutable as the commander-in-chief himself.

Trump’s national security adviser, lieutenant general HR McMaster, said Russia, as Assad’s most powerful ally, could now change the course of world events.

“Russia should ask themselves, ‘What are we doing here?’” McMaster said Sunday on Fox News. “‘Why are we supporting this murderous regime that is committing mass murder of its own population and using the most heinous weapons available?’”

In his first interview since replacing retired general Michael Flynn, the president’s first national security adviser who resigned over misleading the White House about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, McMaster said the US was still willing to make a rapprochement with the Kremlin, as Trump has suggested for months.

“Russia could be part of the solution,” McMaster said. “Do they want it to be a relationship of competition and potential conflict? I don’t see how that’s in Russian interests. Or do they want it to be a relationship in which we can find areas of cooperation that are in mutual interests?”

The relationship, he said, could be “whatever the Russians wants it to be”.

McMaster also said, in a shift that aligned Trump with Barack Obama before him, the president believes a political solution in Syria is all but impossible if Assad remains in power.

“It’s very difficult to understand how a political solution results from a continuation of the Assad regime,” he said. “We’re not saying that we’re the ones to effect that change.”

The aim of the Tomahawk missile strike on a Syrian airbase on Thursday, McMaster said, was to deter another use of chemical weapons after Assad’s forces killed dozens of civilians, including children, with a sarin attack on Tuesday.

McMaster and Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, said on Sunday that Trump was ready to order American soldiers to attack again.

“He won’t stop here,” Haley told CNN’s State of the Union. “If he needs to do more, he will do more. What happens really depends on how everyone responds to what happens in Syria. The United States is going to continue to watch and be active and we’ll see what happens.”

Asked about her remark last month that the US no longer aims primarily “to sit there and focus on getting Assad out”, Haley said that the autocrat’s exit was one of several goals.

“Getting Assad out is not the only priority,” she said, listing the war on terrorist groups and pushing back Iranian influence as others. But she said the Syrian president’s fate was long ago assured.

“There is no political solution with Assad at the lead,” she said. “That’s not something the United States has decided, it’s something the international community has decided.”

Allies including the UK, Saudi Arabia and Israel have cheered the strike, but the US would need at least Russia’s acquiescence, if not its outright help, to force Assad out of power.

The Obama administration failed to reach an agreement over six years of civil war in Syria, and this week the Kremlin showed few signs that it would abandon its partner. Its military promised to bolster Assad’s air defenses, its UN ambassador accused the US of violating international law on an invented pretext, and its prime minister bemoaned “completely ruined relations”.

On Sunday, the Kremlin said Russian president Vladimir Putin and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani had spoken by phone and agreed the US strike had violated international law.

In the first major diplomatic mission to Russia – and his first visit to the country as a public servant and not the head of oil giant ExxonMobil – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will travel to Moscow this week, to look for middle ground. The British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has withdrawn from his planned visit in protest at Moscow’s support for Assad.

On Sunday, Tillerson said the US had no information to suggest Russia actively took part in the sarin attack on the town of Khan Sheikhun, in Idlib province, but also rejected Russian claims that no one knows who was responsible for it.

Tillerson said Russia bore guilt for the attack through its failure to act as guarantor to a 2013 deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons supplies.

“Their failure has led to the killing of more children and innocents,” Tillerson told CBS’s Face the Nation. “Whether Russia was complicit here or whether they were simply incompetent or whether they got outwitted by the Bashar al-Assadregime”, he said, the Kremlin must answer for itself.

Tillerson said he did not expect a military response from Russia over the “very proportional” US strike. He also disputed reports that the Kremlin had cut off a hotline the two nations use to reduce accidental clashes between their forces.

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Trump officials insisted the strike had a limited scope and intent, and was not a sign of mission creep into a battlefield where the US already has hundreds of special forces working with Kurdish groups and rebels. Republicans and Democrats have largely supported the strikes, though some hawks such as the Arizona senator and 2008 presidential candidate John McCain support even greater intervention.

Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump criticized US intervention in Iraq and Libya, although he personally supported action in 2002 and 2011. After Assad killed hundreds in a similar chemical weapons attack in 2013, Trump spent months urging Obama not to intervene, at one point tweeting: “What I am saying is stay out of Syria.”

“He wasn’t president in 2013,” Haley gold NBC’s Meet the Press, defending his reversal and his twice-stalled ban on refugees from Syria entering the US. “And I’m not going to attempt to try and explain that.”

Haley said she could speak for the president this week. “What you saw was a president that was disgusted by what the Assad regime did to those innocent people,” she said.

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