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Top Trump administration officials are warning that Russia could be held accountable for the Syrian government’s chemical attacks against its own civilians — with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations accusing the Kremlin of “covering up” for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“You saw this terrible tragedy on innocent people, a lot of them children,” Nikki Haley said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “And the first reaction from Russia wasn’t, ‘How horrible.’ It wasn’t, ‘How could they do this?’ It wasn’t, ‘How did this happen?’ It was, ‘Assad didn’t do it, Assad didn’t do it.’ Why was that the reaction?”
Haley’s comments come three days after President Trump ordered an airstrike on a Syrian air base in response to last week’s suspected chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of people, including children, in Syria.
Slideshow: U.S. attacks Syrian air base
A spokesman for the Russian defense ministry denied Assad had anything to do with last week’s attack and demanded that the Trump administration provide proof.
“First of all, it cracks me up that Russia can say those things with a straight face,” Haley said. “I mean, truly, it is amazing that they continue to cover for Assad. And it’s very telling and it’s not putting Russia in a good light at all in the international community.”
Haley said the U.S. strike should have sent a signal to Moscow.
“This is something to let Russia know, you know what? We’re not going to have you cover for this regime anymore,” Haley said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And we’re not going to allow things like this to happen to innocent people.”
Haley added: “I think we desperately needed to send a message that, ‘You know what? Russia’s not going to have your back anymore. And if they do, we’re going to make sure that both of you know that we’re not going to settle for it.'”
In his statement announcing the strike Thursday night, Trump did not mention Russia by name.
“Tonight, I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria,” Trump said, “and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.”
On ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he has not seen “any hard evidence that connects the Russians directly to the planning or execution” of last week’s chemical weapons attack. But Tillerson said it’s clear that Moscow has failed to “fulfill the obligation it made to the international community” when it agreed to make sure Syria got rid of its chemical weapons.
“Why Russia has not been able to achieve that is unclear to me,” he said. “I don’t draw conclusions of complicity at all, but clearly, they’ve been incompetent, and perhaps they’ve just simply been outmaneuvered by the Syrians.”
On Friday, Haley told the U.N. Security Council that Trump was “prepared to do more in Syria.” She reiterated that sentiment Sunday.
“I was trying to give warning and notice to the members of the Security Council and the international community that he won’t stop here,” Haley said on CNN. “If he needs to do more, he will do more.”
Tillerson, though, said the strike against Syria was a one-off.
“I think the president was very clear in his message to the American people that this strike was related solely to the most recent horrific use of chemical weapons against women, children, and as the president said, even small babies,” Tillerson said. “So the strike was a message to Bashar al-Assad that your multiple violations of your agreements at the U.N., your agreements under the chemical weapons charter back in 2013 — that those would not go without a response in the future, and 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. Other than that, there is no change to our military posture.”
And both Haley and Tillerson seemed to differ when asked whether the Trump administration is leading the push for regime change in Syria.
“In no way do we see peace in that area with Assad as the head of the Syrian government,” Haley said on NBC. “We have to make sure that we’re pushing that process.”
But Tillerson said regime change comes with a price.
“We’ve seen what that looks like when you undertake a violent regime change in Libya, and the situation in Libya continues to be very chaotic, and I would argue that the life of the Libyan people has, is not all that well off today,” he said on ABC. “So I think we have to learn the lessons of the past and learn the lessons of what went wrong in Libya when you choose that pathway of regime change. So we know this is going to be hard work, but we think it’s also a process that will lead to a durable and lasting stability inside of Syria. Any time you go in and have a violent change at the top, it is very difficult to create the conditions for stability longer term.”
On “Fox News Sunday,” Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, was pressed to explain the seemingly differing statements from Tillerson and Haley on regime change.
“What Ambassador Haley pointed out was, it’s very difficult to figure out how a political solution could result from the continuation of the Assad regime,” McMaster said. “We’re not saying that we are the ones who are going to effect that change. What we’re 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 and using the most heinous weapons available?'”
A pair of Syrian jets took off from the same air base that was hit by the U.S. airstrike on Friday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that Assad was sending Trump a defiant signal by doing so.
“Here’s what I think Assad’s telling Trump by flying from this base: ‘F you,’” Graham said on “Meet The Press.”
Graham, one of the most hawkish members of Congress, had his own message for Trump: “Go after Russia through sanctions not only for interfering in our elections, but aiding and abetting the use of chemical weapons by a war criminal, Assad.”
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