American Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley referred to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad as a “war criminal” guilty of “disgusting” actions against his people, insisting Syrian citizens “don’t want Assad anymore.”
Noting that the United States would not necessarily accept Assad running in a free and fair Syrian presidential election, she expressed faith that Assad would lose against a reasonable alternative candidate. “It’s that we don’t think the people want Assad anymore; we don’t think that he is going to be someone that the people want to have,” she said on Monday. Assad won re-election in 2014 with 88.7 percent of the vote, in an election then-Secretary of State John Kerry called a “sham.”
Haley noted that the Trump administration had “no love for Assad” and accused him of violating international law. “We think that he has been a hindrance to peace for a long time. He’s a war criminal,” she said. “What he’s done to his people is nothing more than disgusting.”
Last week, Haley told reporters that removing Assad from power was not “a priority” for the U.S. government, which led some in the media to question whether U.S. policy had shifted more in favor of Assad than in the past. “You pick and choose your battles,” Haley had said, “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.”
Haley described discussions on whether the United States should actively remove Assad to be “been there, done that” failures.
On Monday, Haley clarified that America does have a priority in Syria outside of removing Assad: defeating the Islamic State (ISIS). “Our goal is to do what we need to defeat ISIS. I don’t know that our goal is to talk to Assad in doing that,” Haley said. “Right now, Assad is not our number one person to talk to.”
Following Haley’s statements last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to toe the same line during his visit to Turkey. “I think the … longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people,” he told a reporter who asked him to comment on Haley’s remarks on Syria. The Turkish government has called for Assad’s ouster since shortly after the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly referring to Assad as a “terrorist.”
Haley’s more recent condemnation of the Assad regime preceded by some hours a gruesome attack on a community in Idlib province, Syria, Tuesday morning, in which between 58 and more than one hundred people were killed. Casualty estimates from NGOs on the ground have varied significantly. The victims exhibited signs of being attacked with sarin gas, a chemical weapon banned by international laws of war. After the bombing of entire neighborhoods, allegedly with a chemical agent, aircraft flew over the hospitals and clinics treating the victims, conducting airstrikes on them.
The Syrian government has not taken responsibility for the attack. The Syrian state news agency SANA instead published a denial of involvement from the Russian government, Assad’s closest international ally. “The Defense Minister has strongly dismissed another fake by Reuters Russian planes allegedly bombed Khan Shaikhoun, [Idlib]” the statement read. “Russian planes carried out no strikes in the area of Khan Shaikhoun.”
The incident has triggered international condemnation, with some Western powers calling for an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting to address the incident. The White House issued a statement calling the bombings “heinous actions” and highlighting the inaction by the Obama administration in light of previous human rights violations by the Assad regime.
Assad reportedly still possesses chemical weapons despite the Obama administration’s calling the use of such weapons a “red line” in 2012. Assad has since been accused of using the weapons on multiple occasions, and his officials have mocked the statement, with little response from the White House. Before leaving office, President Barack Obama said he did not “regret at all” calling the use of chemical weapons a “red line” and not acting on that statement.