Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comment that it must be up to the Syrian people to determine whether beleaguered President Bashar al-Assad stays in power signaled a significant change in Washington’s Syria policy. The Obama administration had consistently maintained that no settlement of the Syrian civil war was possible if Assad remained in power. Only the timing of his departure was deemed a pertinent issue for negotiation—and Obama’s foreign-policy team made even that concession grudgingly.
The apparent shift in policy has triggered outraged responses from the usual flock of hawks in the United States. Their fury intensified when just days after Tillerson’s comment, another chemical attack took place in Syria, killing dozens of civilians. As with the Sarin gas attack in 2013, Western officials and news media were quick to put the blame at the feet of Assad’s government. They did so even though the actual source of the 2013 attack remains uncertain, and even though some evidence pointed to a “false flag” operation by Islamist rebels with the covert assistance of Turkey’s government.
American hawks who demonize Assad exhibited no uncertainty about the perpetrator of either incident. Sen. John McCain railed against the Syrian dictator. “As we once again bear witness to innocent people writhing on the ground and gasping for breath, we know Assad not only disregarded his chemical weapons commitments, but continues to carry on mass atrocities with impunity,” McCain said in a statement. “Unless and until Assad pays a price for his brutality, the slaughter and destruction in Syria will go on.” Instead of backing off on demanding Assad’s ouster, the Trump administration must “take action to address this strategic and humanitarian disaster, which has led to more than 400,000 Syrians killed and six million displaced,” McCain said. Sen. Marco Rubio asserted that it “was no coincidence” that the gas attack took place right after Secretary Tillerson and other administration officials indicated a softened policy toward Assad.
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