WASHINGTON — President Trump on Thursday considered whether to unleash American military might to punish Syrian strongman Bashar Assad after a chemical attack this week that killed dozens of civilians, including children, and drew global outrage. As Trump weighed the use of force, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the president had also begun a difficult diplomatic campaign to remove Assad from power.
Privately, top U.S. officials dismissed the notion that Trump planned to forcibly remove Assad. One top administration official told Yahoo News that any strikes under consideration would be designed “as a response” to Tuesday’s attack in a mostly rebel-controlled area near the Turkish border — not for “regime change” in Damascus.
“We are looking at a range of options, not simply military,” the official said, on condition of anonymity.
Trump huddled with top advisers including Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster in Palm Beach, Fla., where he was to dine with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday night to kick off their first summit. In a sign of how quickly events were unfolding, White House officials had said just a day earlier that McMaster would not travel with Trump.
It was unclear what specific military options — if any — the president would choose. The Pentagon has long resisted the creation of “safe zones” in Syria because defending them could place Americans at risk. The United States has hundreds of troops on the ground, but they are part of a plan to capture the city of Raqqa, the capital of the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
One of the more likely options, one national security official said, was the use of air strikes, perhaps cruise missiles, to take out runways necessary for Assad’s air campaign. The official cautioned that one problem would be making sure that no Russian forces are present, lest the situation escalate to direct conflict between Washington and Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent forces to shore up Assad’s depleted military against rebels who are locked in a multifaceted civil war that has left some 500,000 dead, sent a flood of refugees to Syria’s neighbors and Europe and helped fuel the rise of ISIS.
The chemical attack is “a serious matter, it requires a serious response,” Tillerson told reporters at a press conference in Florida. The top U.S. diplomat sketched out a long, difficult and potentially fruitless effort to push Assad from power.
“The process by which Assad would leave is something that I think requires an international community effort, both to first defeat ISIS within Syria, to stabilize the Syrian country, to avoid further civil war, and then to work collectively with our partners around the world through a political process that would lead to Assad leaving,” he said. Pressed on whether he and Trump were working to assemble an international coalition to achieve that goal, Tillerson replied: “Those steps are underway.”
The secretary of state also had tough words for Moscow, Assad’s patron. “It is very important that the Russian government consider carefully their continued support for the Assad regime,” he said.
And he reaffirmed what senior U.S. officials have said since the world first saw footage and photographs of gasping, dying or dead children in Khan Sheikhoun, a locality in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib — Assad is to blame.
“There is no doubt in our minds and the information we have supports that Syria, the Syrian regime on the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad, are responsible for this attack,” Tillerson said.
Trump contacted key lawmakers early Wednesday about Syria. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain told Fox News that he had spoken by telephone with the president. “He’s angry, as he well should be, and he’s consulting with his military leadership as well as his secretary of state, and I have some optimism that he will take some concrete action here,” the Arizona Republican said.
Later in the day, Trump held a joint press conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah II and declared “I now have the responsibility” to lead the global response to the attack.
The frenzy of diplomatic and military planning capped a chaotic 10 days that began with Tillerson and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, dropping longtime U.S. demands that Assad must go. And White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that “there is a political reality we have to accept.”
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