WASHINGTON—The Trump administration said Sunday that its focus in Syria is the defeat of Islamic State, not pushing President Bashar al-Assad from power.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, in separate interviews, said that the administration’s decision last week to strike an Assad regime airfield wasn’t a sign that the U.S. is now focused on toppling the Syrian leader.
“Our priority is first the defeat of ISIS,” Mr. Tillerson told George Stephanopoulos on ABC. “Once we can eliminate the battle against ISIS, conclude that—and it is going quite well—then we hope to turn our attention to cease-fire agreements between the regime and opposition forces.”
Lt. Gen. McMaster echoed Mr. Tillerson’s comments in an interview on Fox News with Chris Wallace.
Questions about U.S. policy arose after President Donald Trump ordered airstrikes on a regime air base in northwestern Syria believed to be home to pilots that carried out a chemical weapons attack that killed at least 85 people, including 27 children.
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- Nikki Haley Warns U.S. Prepared to ‘Do More’ in Syria
- U.S. Launches Cruise Missiles at Syrian Air Base in Response to Chemical Attack
- President Trump’s Syria Statement: ‘Tonight, I Ordered a Targeted Military Strike’
Until last week, Mr. Trump and the administration had talked of Mr. Assad as a potential partner in the fight against Islamic State.
That all changed Tuesday when Mr. Assad’s regime used suspected chemical weapons. Mr. Trump said the graphic images of dead and dying Syrian children changed his views of Mr. Assad and triggered his decision to strike.
On Sunday, though, Mr. Tillerson said America’s primary focus in Syria is destroying Islamic State, also known as ISIS, which is the focus of an intensifying U.S. military campaign targeting the extremist group’s de facto capital in Raqqa.
The two men, along with United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, said the U.S. sees no future for Mr. Assad in Syria.
“Regime change is something that we think is going to happen, because all of the parties are going to see that Assad’s not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria,” Ms. Haley said on CNN.
The U.S. is looking into what Russia may have known about last week’s attack. Russian forces operate side by side with Syrian forces at the Shayrat Airfield, which was targeted by the U.S. strike. U.S. military officials said last week that they were trying to determine if a Russian pilot hit a rebel field hospital where victims of the chemical weapons attack were taken for treatment.
While U.S. military officials said they have no firm evidence that Russia was involved in the strike, Ms. Haley said that Moscow either knew about the use of chemical weapons, or it is dangerously ignorant of what its Syrian ally is doing.
“Russia’s got to tell us which one it is. Either they knew that there were chemical weapons and they knew there was going to be chemical weapons use and they just hid it from the international community, or they’re being played for fools by Assad by him having chemical weapons and they’re just in the dark and they don’t know anything about it,” she said.
The U.S. military estimates that it destroyed 20 Syrian regime aircraft when it fired nearly 60 cruise missiles at the Syrian airfield Thursday. But the U.S. strikes didn’t destroy the runway, an intentional decision that allowed the regime to resume airstrikes against rebel forces within hours of the attack.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said the resumption of flights from the base appeared to be a crude message to the U.S.
“Assad’s telling Trump by flying from this base: ’F-you,’” Mr. Graham said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And I think he’s making a serious mistake.”
Mr. Graham and Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) have called on the U.S. to strike all of Mr. Assad’s airfields to cripple his ability to carry out airstrikes on regime forces.
The U.S. military looked at taking that step, Mr. McCain said, but Mr. Trump ultimately embraced the modest strike on the single airfield.
Tags: America’s primary focus in Syria is destroying Islamic State, Bashar al-Assad, chemical weapons, chemical weapons attack, Chris Wallace, defeat of Islamic State, George Stephanopoulos, H.R. McMaster, Haley, ISIS, Islamic state, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Nikki Haley, President Donald Trump, Rex Tillerson, Russian forces, Shayrat Airfield, Trump administration, U.S. military