US says Syria’s Assad must go after chemical attack
NEW YORKSyrian President Bashar al-Assad cannot stay in power after a suspected chemical attack last week prompted the first direct U.S. military action against his government, Washington’s ambassador to the United Nations has said.
Nikki Haley’s comments in an interview that was aired on April 9 came as part of an apparent shift in U.S. policy toward al-Assad’s government after the alleged chemical attack last week on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed 87 people, including many children.
Images of civilians suffering the apparent effects of a gas attack, including convulsions, vomiting and foaming at the mouth, provoked international outrage and prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to order a strike on a Syrian airbase.
In the interview with CNN, Haley said peace in Syria was impossible with al-Assad in power.
“There’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime,” she told the “State of the Union” program.
“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. Regime change is something that we think is going to happen,” she said, adding that Washington was also focused on fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria and ending Iranian influence.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insisted, however, that defeating ISIL in Syria remained Washington’s top priority.
“It’s important that we keep our priorities straight. And we believe that the first priority is the defeat of ISIS,” Tillerson said in an interview with CBS television’s “Face the Nation” that was to be broadcast later on April 9.
“Once the ISIS threat has been reduced or eliminated, I think we can turn our attention directly to stabilizing the situation in Syria,” he said, using an alternative acronym for ISIL.
After years of calling for al-Assad’s removal during former president Barack Obama’s tenure, Washington appeared to be stepping back from seeking regime change in Syria in recent weeks.
Prior to the attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Tillerson said al-Assad’s fate should be decided by the Syrian people, suggesting Washington would not oppose him standing for re-election.
And Haley, too, said Washington’s priority was “no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.”
But in the aftermath of the attack, Trump ordered the strike targeting the Shayrat air base in central Syria’s Homs province with 59 Tomahawk missiles.
Al-Assad’s government signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and agreed to turn over its chemical armaments in 2013, after being accused of a sarin attack outside Damascus that killed hundreds of people.
But there have been repeated allegations of chemical weapons use by the government since then.
Syria’s closest allies, Russia and Iran, have defended Damascus against the allegations of chemical weapons use, with Moscow saying a conventional strike hit a rebel depot containing “toxic substances.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called al-Assad to reaffirm his support for the Syrian leader in the wake of the U.S. strike, Rouhani’s office said April 9.
“The nation of Iran will remain alongside the Syrian nation in fighting terrorism and safeguarding Syria’s territorial integrity,” Rouhani said in the call in the evening on April 8, according to a statement on the presidency website.
He said allegations that al-Assad’s regime was behind a chemical weapons attack were “baseless” and suggested it was carried out by rebel groups to influence global public opinion. Moscow also slammed Britain after Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson canceled on April 9 a trip over Russian support for al-Assad.
The British have “no real influence,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.
British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon on April 9 accused Russia of being responsible “by proxy” for the death of the 87 civilians killed in the Khan Sheikhoun attack.
“Assad’s principal backer is Russia. By proxy, Russia is responsible for every civilian death last week,” Fallon wrote in an opinion column published in The Sunday Times.
A joint command center made up of the forces of Russian, Iran and allied militia alliance supporting al-Assad said the U.S. strike on a Syrian air base crossed “red lines” and it would now respond to any new aggression and increase their level of support to their ally.
“What America waged in an aggression on Syria is a crossing of red lines. From now on, we will respond with force to any aggressor or any breach of red lines from whoever it is and America knows our ability to respond well,” said the statement published by the group on media outlet Ilam al-Harbi.
Meanwhile, ISIL militants launched two suicide attacks on U.S.-backed Syrian rebels near the border with Iraq, leaving at least 12 dead in the fighting and many wounded, rebels sources said on April 9.
They said eight ISIL fighters and four of their own men died.