By JOHN T. BENNETT and NIELS LESNIEWSKI, CQ ROLL CALL
The White House stopped short Tuesday of saying a chemical weapons attack in Syria constitutes a “red line” requiring a U.S. response, even as a prominent Senate Republican suggested the Trump administration’s posture toward Bashar al-Assad likely emboldened the Syrian strongman.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer read a prepared statement that condemned the attack, and soon after made clear the United States is confident it was carried out by Syrian President Assad’s forces. Spicer also blamed the situation there on former President Barack Obama’s approach to the years-long civil war there.
President Donald Trump was “extremely alarmed” when his team briefed him on the attack Tuesday morning, Spicer told reporters during an off-camera briefing. He expressed confidence that the attack was not the work of Russian or other troops operating in the war-torn country.
Just days after the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, signaled that the Trump administration was breaking from Obama’s policy that Assad had to leave power, Spicer said the opposite in the wake of the deadly gas attack.
The Trump administration would prefer for Assad to relinquish power, he said, adding: “I think it’s in the best interest of the Syrian people to not have a leader” who carries out chemical attacks on innocent citizens, including women and children.
But five days ago, Haley said the new administration would put its energies into finding a political solution to the conflict, rather than focusing mostly on Assad.
“You pick and choose your battles,” Haley said, according to reports. “And when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.”
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., who long has advocated for a more forceful American involvement in Syria, said on Tuesday that Haley’s comments might have given Assad the impression that he could take bolder measures in the conflict without threat of retribution from the new U.S. president.
“Yes. Well, wouldn’t you think so? Wouldn’t you think so?” McCain said when asked just that.
“I can’t make that direct connection, but I can say that if you make a statement [that] ‘the Syrian people are going to determine their own future themselves,’ that’s such a defiance of reality that it can only be interpreted as the United States is withdrawing from addressing that issue,” McCain told reporters minutes after Spicer spoke.
McCain also appeared to be responding to a comment Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made during a recent press conference in Turkey.
“I think the … longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people,” Tillerson said.
Several major media outlets reported “dozens” were killed in the chemical attack in the opposition-occupied Idlib province.
Obama in August 2012 said a chemical attack by Assad’s forces would constitute a “red line” that he would feel obliged to respond to. When Assad did just that, Obama first signaled he would conduct military strikes, but then had second thoughts.
He asked Congress to first approve U.S. military action there, on which they were unable to foster agreement and the necessary votes on an authorization measure.