Donald Trump’s national security adviser has urged Russia to re-evaluate its support for Syrian president Bashar Assad, leaving open the possibility of additional US military action against Syria.
In his first televised interview, HR McMaster highlighted dual US goals of defeating the so-called ‘Islamic State’ group and removing Mr Assad from power.
As US secretary of state Rex Tillerson makes the Trump administration’s first official trip this week to Russia, Mr McMaster said Russia will have to decide whether it wants to continue backing a “murderous regime”.
US president Mr Trump is weighing up his next step after ordering air strikes last week.
“It’s very difficult to understand how a political solution could result from the continuation of the Assad regime,” Mr McMaster told Fox News Sunday.
“Now, we are not saying that we are the ones who are going to effect that change. What we are saying is, other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions.
“Russia should ask themselves … Why are we supporting this murderous regime that is committing mass murder of its own population?”
He said Russia should also be asked how it did not know that Syria was planning a chemical attack since it had advisers at the Syrian airfield.
“Right now, I think everyone in the world sees Russia as part of the problem,” Mr McMaster said.
After last Tuesday’s chemical attack in Syria, Mr Trump said his attitude toward Mr Assad “has changed very much”. Mr Tillerson also said “steps are under way” to organise a coalition to remove him from power.
With US politicians calling on Mr Trump to consult with congress, government officials sent mixed signals on the scope of future US involvement.
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, described regime change in Syria as a US priority and inevitable, while Mr Tillerson suggested that last week’s American air strikes in retaliation for the chemical attack had not really changed US priorities toward ousting the Syrian leader.
Mr McMaster said the goals of fighting ‘IS’ and ousting Syria’s president were somewhat “simultaneous” and that the objective of the missile strike was to send a “strong political message to Assad” to stop using chemical weapons.
He did not rule out additional strikes if Mr Assad continues to engage in atrocities against rebel forces with either chemical or conventional weapons.
“We are prepared to do more,” he said. “The president will make whatever decision he thinks is in the best interest of the American people.”
While reluctant to put significant troops on the ground in Syria, the US has struggled for years to prevent Mr Assad from strengthening his hold on power.
US-backed rebels groups have long pleaded for more US intervention and complained that Washington has only fought the Islamic State group.
Mr Trump’s decision to launch the strikes – an action former US president Barack Obama declined to take after a 2013 chemical attack – has raised optimism among rebels that the current US leader will confront Mr Assad.
Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the number two Republican in the US Senate, praised Mr Trump’s initial missile strike for sending a message to Mr Assad, Russia, Iran and North Korea that “there’s a new administration in charge”.
But he added that Mr Trump now needs to work with congress to set a future course.
“Congress needs to work with the president to try and deal with this long-term strategy, lack of strategy, really, in Syria,” he said.
“We haven’t had one for six years during the Obama administration, and 400,000 civilians have died and millions of people have been displaced internally and externally in Europe and elsewhere.”
Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the foreign relations committee, agreed. “What we saw was a reaction to the use of chemical weapons, something I think many of us supported,” he said.
“But what we did not see is a coherent policy on how we’re going to deal with the civil war and also deal with (IS).”