Rubio says Tillerson comments gave Assad "an incentive to act with impunity"

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and Honduras’ President Juan Orlando Hernandez (not pictured) attend a news conference after a private meeting at the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa, Honduras June 1, 2016.

REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera

A key Republican Senator suggested that comments made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were an “incentive” for the apparent chemical attack by the Assad regime against civilians in Syria. 

“It’s my belief if you are Bashar al-Assad and you read that it is no longer a priority of the United States to have you removed from power I believe that is an incentive to act with impunity,” Senator Marco Rubio, R-Florida, told reporters on Wednesday.

The Florida Republican was referring to comments made by Tillerson at a press conference in Ankara, Turkey last week implying that the removal of President Assad was no longer a priority for the United States.

“I think the status and the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people,” Tillerson replied when asked if Assad should stay or go. That drew an immediate rebuke from Senator John McCain, R-Arizona, who said in a statement the same day that he was “deeply disturbed” by the Secretary of State’s comments.

“I personally do not believe it is coincidental,” Rubio noted while attributing culpability to Assad and the regime’s Russian allies.

In a joint press conference to announce legislation holding Assad accountable as a war criminal, Rubio and Senator Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called on the Trump administration to make it clear that U.S. policy was for President Assad to leave power.

“President Assad has no legitimacy as the leader of Syria and no future as the leader of Syria and that should be made very clear by the pronouncements of the administration,” Cardin said.

Until now Mr. Trump, who campaigned on a platform of “America First” and against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, has been resistant to the idea of regime change in Syria. However on Wednesday afternoon, the president said that this latest attack had changed his mind about the conflict. 

“My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” he remarked to reporters, despite the fact that Assad first attacked civilians with chemical weapons in 2013. At the time, Mr. Trump urged then President Obama to take no military action.

“I just fear we’ve reached a point where we are desensitized by all this,” Rubio lamented as he stood in front of a large photo of the victims. “Now it’s just like another day in the life of this crazy world.”