Two veteran Republican senators are criticizing U.S. administration officials for saying the United States is no longer insisting on the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a prerequisite for resolving the six-year civil war in Syria.
Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham in separate statements on March 30 assailed the new Trump administration stance as "self-destructive" and a "grave mistake."
Speaking in New York on March 30, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said "our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out."
Earlier on the same day, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking in Ankara, said Assad's future "will be decided by the Syrian people."
McCain and Graham have been leading critics among fellow Republicans of President Donald Trump's policies and a wide variety of issues.
McCain said Tillerson's statement "overlooks the tragic reality that the Syrian people cannot decide the fate of Assad or the future of their country when they are being slaughtered."
McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, blamed Assad's military, Russia's air force, and Iranian-backed militias for the attacks on Syrian citizens.
"I hope President Trump will make clear that America will not follow this self-destructive and self-defeating path," McCain said.
Graham, also a member of the Armed Services Committee, said it would be a "grave mistake" if the United States drops the removal of Assad as a goal.
He said the move would be a crushing blow to the Syrian opposition and "a great reward for Russia and Iran."
Responding to the U.S. comments, Syrian opposition spokesman Monzer Makhos told journalists in Geneva that "the opposition will never accept any role for Bashar al-Assad at any phase; there will be no change in our position."
Russia and Iran back Assad, while Turkey and the United States have supported rebel forces fighting for his removal.
In August 2011, Obama said Assad must leave power. In 2015, then-Secretary of State John Kerry said Assad must go, but that the timing of his departure could be a subject of negotiation.
The war in Syria, which began with a government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in March 2011, has left an estimated 300,000 people dead and has displaced millions.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP