Friday 28 July 2017

Trump advisor: US goals are to defeat IS and oust Assad

Donald Trump shakes hands with US Army Lt Gen HR McMaster at Mar-a-Lago Photo:Getty
Donald Trump shakes hands with US Army Lt Gen HR McMaster at Mar-a-Lago Photo:Getty

Hope Yen

Donald Trump's national security adviser has left open the possibility of additional US military action against Syria, but indicated that America was not seeking to act unilaterally to oust Bashar Assad.

In his first televised interview, Herbert "HR" McMaster pointed to dual US goals of defeating the Islamic State terror group and removing the Syrian president.

But he suggested that President Trump was seeking a global political response for regime change from US allies as well as Russia, which he said needed to re-evaluate its support of Syria.

"It's very difficult to understand how a political solution could result from the continuation of the Assad regime," the US Army lieutenant general said.

"Now, we are not saying that we are the ones who are going to effect that change. What we are saying is, other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions.

"Russia should ask themselves, 'Why are we supporting this murderous regime that is committing mass murder of its own population?'."

After last Tuesday's chemical attack in Syria, Mr Trump said his attitude towards Assad "has changed very much" and secretary of state Rex Tillerson said "steps are under way" to organise a coalition to remove him from power.

But as politicians called on Mr Trump to consult Congress on any future military strikes and a longer-term strategy on Syria, Trump administration officials sent mixed signals on the scope of US involvement.

While Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, described regime change in Syria as a US priority and inevitable, Mr Tillerson suggested that last week's American air strikes in retaliation for the chemical attack had not really changed US priorities towards ousting Assad.

Pressed to clarify, Mr McMaster said the goals of fighting IS and ousting Syria's president were somewhat "simultaneous" and that the objective of the missile strike was to send a "strong political message to Assad".

He did not rule out additional strikes if Assad continued to engage in atrocities against rebel forces with either chemical or conventional weapons.

"We are prepared to do more," he said.

"The president will make whatever decision he thinks is in the best interest of the American people."

Reluctant to put significant troops on the ground in Syria, the US has struggled for years to prevent Assad from strengthening his hold on power.

US-backed rebels groups have long pleaded for more American intervention and complained that Washington has fought only IS.

So Mr Trump's decision to launch the strikes - which Barack Obama declined to do after a 2013 chemical attack - has raised optimism among rebels that he will confront Assad more directly.

Several politicians said that decision should not entirely be up to Mr Trump.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the number two Republican in the Senate, praised Mr Trump's initial missile strike for sending a message to Assad, Russia, Iran and North Korea that "there's a new administration in charge".

But he said Mr Trump now needed to work with Congress to set a future course.

"Congress needs to work with the president to try and deal with this long-term strategy, lack of strategy, really, in Syria," he said.

"We haven't had one for six years during the Obama administration, and 400,000 civilians have died and millions of people have been displaced internally and externally in Europe and elsewhere."

Maryland senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, agreed.

"What we saw was a reaction to the use of chemical weapons, something I think many of us supported," he said.

"But what we did not see is a coherent policy on how we're going to deal with the civil war and also deal with Isis."

Republican senator Lindsey Graham said he believed Mr Trump did not need to consult Congress.

"I think the president has authorisation to use force," he said.

"Assad signed the chemical weapons treaty ban. There's an agreement with him not to use chemical weapons."

Their comments came as Mr Tillerson was making the Trump administration's first official trip this week to Russia, a staunch Assad ally.

In interviews broadcast on Sunday, he said defeating IS remained the top focus.

Once that threat "has been reduced or eliminated, I think we can turn our attention directly to stabilising the situation in Syria", he said.

"We're hopeful that we can prevent a continuation of the civil war and that we can bring the parties to the table to begin the process of political discussions" between the Assad government and various rebel groups.

The hope, he said, is that "we can navigate a political outcome in which the Syrian people, in fact, will determine Bashar al-Assad's fate and his legitimacy".

Ms Haley said "getting Assad out is not the only priority" and that countering Iran's influence in Syria was another.

Still, she said the US did not see a peaceful future Syria with Assad in power.

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