Regime change be­comes part of Trump plan in Syria war

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAN BOY­LAN

Pres­i­dent Trump’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser on Sun­day sig­naled a shift in the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s stance to­ward Syria, which now in­cludes regime change, as Rus­sia and Iran recom­mit to sup­port­ing Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad af­ter the U.S. strike early Fri­day on a Syr­ian air base that is be­lieved to have launched a chem­i­cal at­tack on civil­ians last week.

Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser H.R. McMaster said the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has two goals in Syria: de­feat­ing the Is­lamic State group and re­mov­ing Mr. As­sad from power. How­ever, he added that Mr. Trump is seek­ing a global re­sponse that would in­clude U.S. al­lies as well as Rus­sia and Iran.

“It’s very dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand how a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion could re­sult from the con­tin­u­a­tion of the As­sad regime,” Mr. McMaster said on “Fox News Sun­day.” “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?’”

But Rus­sia ap­par­ently was pre­oc­cu­pied with its own con­cerns. The Krem­lin is­sued a state­ment Sun­day say­ing that Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin had spo­ken via telephone with Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani about the U.S. airstrike.

“Both sides noted the in­ad­mis­si­bil­ity of ag­gres­sive U.S. ac­tions against a sov­er­eign state in vi­o­la­tion of in­ter­na­tional law,” the state­ment said. “Vladimir Putin and Has­san Rouhani spoke in fa­vor of an ob­jec­tive, un­bi­ased in­ves­ti­ga­tion of all the cir­cum­stances of the chem­i­cal weapons in­ci­dent on April 4 in the Syr­ian province of Idlib.”

Mr. Rouhani, a so-called mod­er­ate who faces re-elec­tion this year, said the U.S. strike would not af­fect Iran’s pol­icy on Syria, while Supreme Leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei said the Is­lamic repub­lic would not with­draw in the face of sim­i­lar ag­gres­sions.

“What the Amer­i­cans did is a strate­gic mis­take and of­fense. They are re­peat­ing of­fense of their pre­de­ces­sors,” Ay­a­tol­lah Khamenei was quoted as say­ing by the of­fi­cial IRNA news agency.

Rus­sia and Iran al­ready had crit­i­cized the U.S. mis­sile at­tack on Syria’s al-Shayrat air­field as a vi­o­la­tion against a sov­er­eign na­tion.

Late Thurs­day, Mr. Trump or­dered two Navy de­stroy­ers in the Mediter­ranean to fire a to­tal of 59 Tom­a­hawk cruise mis­siles at tar­gets on the air­field to pun­ish the As­sad regime for its as­sumed role in a sarin nerve gas at­tack that left nearly 100 peo­ple dead or wounded in Syria’s Idlib province. It is be­lieved the air­craft that dropped the chem­i­cal weapon on Idlib had taken off from alShayrat air­field.

“No child of God should ever suf­fer such hor­ror,” the pres­i­dent said from his Mar-a-Lago re­sort in Palm Beach, Florida, where he was host­ing Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping for a trade and se­cu­rity sum­mit.

De­bate on Sun­day in­ten­si­fied among top White House for­eign pol­icy mak­ers over the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s first overt mil­i­tary ac­tion and its sig­nif­i­cance on Amer­ica’s stance to­ward Syria’s bru­tal, con­found­ing 6-year-old civil war.

Speak­ing on ABC’s “This Week,” Sec­re­tary of State Rex W. Tiller­son sim­ply stated that Wash­ing­ton’s po­si­tion on Syria had not changed since the mis­sile strike.

“We are ask­ing Rus­sia to ful­fill its com­mit­ment, and we’re ask­ing and calling on Bashar al-As­sad to cease the use of these weapons,” Mr. Tiller­son said, re­fer­ring to a 2013 deal by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in which Moscow guar­an­teed Syria’s chem­i­cal stock­piles had been re­moved. “Other than that, there is no change to our mil­i­tary pos­ture.”

Be­fore last week, Mr. Trump op­posed ac­tion against Mr. As­sad’s Rus­sia-backed regime and framed the Syria prob­lem as an is­sue of elim­i­nat­ing the Is­lamic State.

The pres­i­dent’s sud­den pol­icy about­face had Wash­ing­ton diplo­matic in­sid­ers ar­gu­ing whether the strikes set the stage for deeper U.S.-Rus­sian talks than the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion was able to achieve or whether they were merely low-risk, low-re­ward theater.

On Wed­nes­day, Mr. Tiller­son will be­come the first Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial to visit Rus­sia when he flies to Moscow for diplo­matic talks. Krem­lin rep­re­sen­ta­tives said the airstrikes on Syria dealt a sig­nif­i­cant blow to U.S.-Rus­sian re­la­tions.

The Tiller­son trip has lead­ers across Europe and the Mid­dle East anx­ious. Both re­gions feel the strain of Syria’s refugee cri­sis, while the civil war has threat­ened se­cu­rity and sta­bil­ity across the Mid­dle East, in­clud­ing Tur­key, Le­banon, Jor­dan, Iraq, Iran and Is­rael.

In a CBS in­ter­view on Sun­day, Mr. Tiller­son con­firmed that Wash­ing­ton had no spe­cific in­for­ma­tion sug­gest­ing Rus­sian in­volve­ment in the Idlib at­tack, which se­nior Pen­tagon of­fi­cials briefly spec­u­lated.

He also brushed aside any U.S. fears that Moscow might re­tal­i­ate.

“It was a very de­lib­er­ate, very pro­por­tional and very tar­geted strike,” Mr. Tiller­son said on CBS’ “Face the Na­tion.” “And Rus­sia was never part of the tar­get­ing.”

Nikki Ha­ley, U.S. am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions, echoed Mr. McMaster’s dual goals for Syria, say­ing that the first U.S. pri­or­ity is the de­struc­tion of the Is­lamic State but there can be mul­ti­ple pri­or­i­ties.

“In no way do we look at peace hap­pen­ing in that area with Ira­nian in­flu­ence,” Ms. Ha­ley said on NBC’s “Meet The Press.” “In no way do we see peace in that area with Rus­sia cov­er­ing up for As­sad. In no way do we see peace in that area with As­sad as the head of the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment.”

Other Repub­li­can lead­ers called for more clar­ity.

Sen. John McCain of Ari­zona, who sup­ported the airstrike, said on “Face The Na­tion” that much more was re­quired.

“Just a one-time deal is not go­ing to be pro­duc­tive,” Mr. McCain said. “A very small per­cent­age of the peo­ple who have been slaugh­tered in Syria have been slaugh­tered by chem­i­cal weapons. It’s been done by bar­rel bombs and in­dis­crim­i­nate killing and all the other war crimes that have been com­mit­ted.”

Mr. McCain also poked Mr. Tiller­son and Ms. Ha­ley over the White House pol­icy re­ver­sal and said this con­fu­sion could have con­trib­uted to the use of chem­i­cal weapons.

“I think it prob­a­bly was par­tially to blame,” he said. “And Sec­re­tary Tiller­son ba­si­cally say­ing the same thing af­ter kind of con­tra­dict­ing him­self and then say­ing the same thing ar­gues vig­or­ously for a plan and a strat­egy.”

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas ex­pressed his sup­port for the mis­sile strike but added that Mr. Trump must work with the Repub­li­can-led Congress to cre­ate a strat­egy.

“Congress needs to work with the pres­i­dent to try and deal with this longterm strat­egy, lack of strat­egy, re­ally, in Syria,” Mr. Cornyn said on “Fox News Sun­day.” “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.”

● This ar­ti­cle is based in part on wire ser­vice re­ports.

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