NEW YORK — The US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has told CNN that removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power is a priority, cementing an extraordinary U-turn in the Trump administration’s stance on the embattled leader.
Two days after the US launched military strikes on a Syrian airbase in response to a chemical weapons attack widely blamed on the Assad regime, Haley said the departure of Assad was inevitable.
Before Tuesday’s attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, which killed 89 people, Haley had said toppling Assad was not a priority. President Donald Trump, before his election, described fighting ISIS and seeking Assad’s removal at the same time as “idiocy.”
But after seeing images of the horrific aftermath of the chemical attack, US President Donald Trump ordered a bombardment of the Shayrat airbase in western Syria, which the US believes was the launchpad for the strike. It was the first time that the US had struck the Syrian regime since the start of the six-year civil war
In her interview with CNN’s “State of the Union,” Haley said removing Assad from power was one of a number of priorities for the US.
“Getting Assad out is not the only priority. So what we’re trying to do is obviously defeat ISIS. Secondly, we don’t see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there. Thirdly, get the Iranian influence out. And then finally move towards a political solution, because at the end of the day this is a complicated situation, there are no easy answers and a political solution is going to have to happen,” she said in the interview with anchor Jake Tapper, to air on Sunday.
Haley said that the Trump administration’s view was that a political solution would not happen with Assad in power, though she stopped short of saying Assad’s departure was now official US policy.
“If you look at his actions, if you look at the situation, it’s going to be hard to see a government that’s peaceful and stable with Assad,” she said.
“Regime change is something that we think is going to happen because all of the parties are going to see that Assad is not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was more equivocal about Assad’s future on Sunday. He told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the threat of ISIS would first need to be reduced, then “I think we can turn our attention directly to stabilizing the situation in Syria.”
Change of tone
The decision to carry out strikes against the regime and the change in tone from Haley follows Trump’s comments that the chemical attack “crossed a lot of lines for me.”
Five days before the Khan Sheikhoun attack, Haley indicated the US had ditched the Obama administration’s policy of removing Assad.
“Our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out,” Haley had told reporters on March 30. On the same day, Tillerson said on a trip to Turkey that the “longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”
Tillerson and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, spoke by phone on Saturday, according to a statement posted on the official Facebook page of the Russian Foreign Ministry, which said the US had initiated the call.
“Lavrov stressed that an attack on a country whose government is fighting terrorism only plays into the hands of extremists creates additional threats to regional and global security,” the statement said. Lavrov said US allegations that Syria carried out the chemical attack “do not correspond to reality.”
Russia has claimed Tuesday’s deaths in Khan Sheikhoun were caused by a Syrian regime airstrike on a rebel-controlled chemical weapons facility.
Syria has given a murky account of what happened, but denies deliberately carrying out a chemical attack and blames “terrorist groups” for the deaths.
Lavrov said he supported a “thorough and impartial” investigation. Tillerson is due to travel to Moscow on Wednesday for talks with Lavrov.
Haley on Friday warned that the United States was prepared to take further actions in Syria, but the Trump administration has refused to be drawn on what those next steps would be.
Tensions between Russia and the US have increased sharply since Trump ordered the missile strikes. Russia has sent a frigate armed with cruise missiles to a port in western Syria in an apparent show of force in response to the US action.
Russia is Syria’s most powerful ally and has propped up the Assad regime with air power.
The US has said the Pentagon is looking for any evidence the Russian government knew about or was complicit in the chemical attack.
A US military official told CNN the Pentagon was examining specifically whether a Russian warplane had bombed a hospital in Khan Sheikhoun five hours after the initial chemical attack, with the aim of destroying evidence. Russia flatly denies the allegations.
The US strike
US officials said the strike against the Shayrat airbase hit aircraft, fuel storage, weapons dumps and other equipment, and was aimed at sending a message to the Syrian regime that the use of chemical weapons would not be tolerated.
But new airstrikes on Saturday, believed carried out by the Syrian regime or Russia, targeted Khan Sheikhoun again, raising criticism that the US action had been ineffective and should have aimed to destroy the facility’s runway.
But Trump tweeted in defense on Saturday night that targeting a runway made little sense and they were easily repaired.