Republican Sen. John McCain tore into Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday morning, telling CNN that Tillerson’s recent comments about the US’s policy in Syria represented “
another disgraceful chapter in American history.”
Tillerson told reporters while he was in Turkey last week that the “longer-term status of President [Bashar] Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”
The remark signalled a shift in the US’s official position toward the Syrian strongman. Though they were criticised for failing to act against Assad’s atrocities, President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry had long called for Assad to step down in a monitored transition of power.
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley took an even stronger position than Tillerson, telling reporters that the administration’s “priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.”
Haley’s comments stood in stark contrast to those of the previous UN ambassador, Samantha Power, who directly confronted Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies during a UN Security Council meeting in December with a fierce address.
“Three member states of the UN contributing to a noose around civilians. It should shame you. Instead, by all appearances, it is emboldening you,” Power said at the time. “You are plotting your next assault. Are you truly incapable of shame?”
In a press conference four months later, Haley told reporters that the Trump administration thinks Assad is “a hindrance.” She added that she believes he is a “war criminal.”
“But are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No,” she said. “You pick and choose your battles.”
A senior administration official described Haley’s comments as “a measure of just realism” and “accepting the facts on the ground,” according to Reuters.
The apparent shift comes as dozens of people were reportedly killed in an attack on Tuesday when a hospital that had been treating civilians injured in chemical attacks was bombed. Activists described the attack as among the worst in the country’s six-year war.
But some experts said Tillerson’s and Haley’s comments will be music to the ears of Russian president Vladimir Putin, who intervened in the Syrian civil war on behalf of Assad in late September 2015.
McCain, a GOP foreign-policy hawk who has called for a US military intervention in Syria, said Tuesday that he is “sure Russia took note of what Tillerson said just the other day.”
“It was one of the more incredible statements I’ve ever heard,” he told CNN.
When asked what he thinks of Trump’s foreign policy “doctrine,” McCain replied that he doesn’t “see any doctrine right now.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, who shares similar foreign-policy views, said in a statement last week that “if the press reports are accurate and the Trump Administration is no longer focusing on removing Assad, I fear it will be the biggest mistake since President Obama failed to act after drawing a red line against Assad’s use of chemical weapons.”
The Obama administration’s failure to enforce the “red line” it drew for intervention in Syria against Assad in 2012 has become arguably the biggest stain on the former president’s foreign-policy legacy. Kerry acknowledged in December that the failure to follow
through on the threat to retaliate against Assad for his use of chemical weapons to kill 1,500 people in August of 2013 damaged the US’s reputation in the region.
Obama opted instead for a deal brokered by Russia to ship Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile out of Syria and destroy them. The US hailed the deal as a success, but Assad has evidently retained some of the weapons he promised to destroy. Syrian activists have reported three separate chemical attacks in the last week alone, according to the Associated Press, including the attack Tuesday.
Watch McCain’s remarks below:
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