WASHINGTON — Under heavy fire for dropping U.S. demands for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ouster from power, the White House declared Friday that it’s time to face “political reality” in Syria.
“With respect to Assad, there is a political reality we have to accept in terms of where we are right now,” press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters at his daily briefing.
Spicer’s comments came as some top Republicans, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, denounced a series of comments from senior Trump aides indicating that Assad’s removal is no longer a priority.
In a written statement, McCain said he was “deeply disturbed” by the new American message, calling it “as devoid of strategy as President Obama’s pronouncements that ‘Assad must go.’” And, the Arizona lawmaker charged, “U.S. policy in Syria is being presented piecemeal in press statements without any definition of success, let alone a realistic plan to achieve it.”
“To suggest that Assad is an acceptable leader for the Syrian people is to ignore the wholesale slaughter of the Syrian people by the Assad regime,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said in a statement. “Leaving him in power is also a great reward for Russia and Iran.’
The senators issued their criticism after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters during a Thursday press conference in Turkey: “I think the status and the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.” He had been asked whether the strongman, who is backed by Russia, should stay or go.
And the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, delivered a blunter message to reporters in New York, saying: “Our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”
The Trump administration “can’t necessarily focus on Assad the way that the previous administration did,” Haley added. Instead, the priority will be the military campaign to destroy the so-called Islamic State.
President Barack Obama first declared that Assad needed to go on Aug. 18, 2011.
“For the sake of the Syrian people,” he said in a statement, “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
That demand put Obama at odds with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who backed Assad. But while the Democrat’s administration called for Assad to be tried for war crimes and other atrocities, his aides privately acknowledged that there was little they could do to put muscle behind the words. And Obama backed off his infamous “red line” — declining to use force after Assad used chemical weapons on his own people.
It’s not clear what steps the United States could take to push out Assad as long as Moscow supports him.
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