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Trump Administration Position On Syria's Assad Decried By Lawmakers

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- Members of Congress are expressing their concerns after members of the Trump administration announced the United States is no longer focused on the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Since Trump became president, many members of Congress have been urging the administration to clarify its objectives in Syria.

On Thursday, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and U.S Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the U.S. is not focused on pushing Assad out of power and that Assad's status would be determined by the people of Syria.

This policy stance is in direct opposition to that of the Obama administration, as well as the United States' European allies, who have insisted that Assad step down.

Just one day prior, Haley had accused the "Assad regime," as well as Russia and Iran, of committing war crimes.

After Tillerson commented that the longer-term status of Assad would be decided by the Syrian people, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, fired back saying, "this 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 by Assad's barrel bombs, Putin's aircraft and Iran's terrorist proxies. U.S. policy must reflect such basic facts."

McCain went on to say, "ultimately, the administration's statements today could lead America's true allies and partners in the fight against ISIS to fear the worst: a Faustian bargain with Assad and Putin sealed with an empty promise of counter-terrorism cooperation. Such a policy would only exacerbate the terrorist threat to our nation."

He said that in addition to being complicit in war crimes, the U.S would make would "empower ISIS, al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist terrorists as the only alternative to the dictator that the Syrian people have fought for six years to remove."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) echoed McCain's concerns, saying "to suggest that Assad is an acceptable leader for the Syrian people is to ignore the wholesale slaughter of the Syrian people by the Assad regime. Leaving him in power is also a great reward for Russia and Iran ... the Syrian people want Assad removed from power ... Hundreds of thousands have died in the fight to accomplish exactly that goal ... this would be crushing news to the Syrian opposition and to our allies throughout the Middle East. I fear it is a grave mistake."

More than 400,000 Syrians have been killed during more than six years of war in the country and roughly 5 million have fled Syria as refugees. Many more Syrians have been internally displaced.

And Republicans aren't the only members of Congress who have been demanding answers from the administration related to U.S. foreign policy on Syria and Iraq.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) wrote a letter this week to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stating, "... I am highly disturbed by reports that recent U.S.-led coalition airstrikes airstrikes have caused large numbers of civilian casualties in Syria and Iraq ... As a Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I am also deeply concerned that the deaths of innocent children and women from U.S. airstrikes sets us back strategically, makes it more difficult to secure peace, and increases terrorist recruitment."

Lieu, a military veteran himself, urged Mattis to inform the American public on U.S. policy in Syria and Iraq, asking him for the number of civilian deaths and injuries caused by U.S. forces there since Donald Trump became President on January 20, 2017.

"In Syria, who is the U.S. supporting, what are U.S. objectives, and what is the end-state our military is trying to achieve?" Lieu asked Mattis in the letter.

Last week, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York) reintroduced the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act which aims to impose sanctions on supporters of Assad, while also supporting prosecution of war criminals and encouraging negotiations to end the Syrian civil war.

Royce said, "As the Syrian conflict enters a seventh year, there are 480,000 dead civilians and countless more that've been beaten, tortured and starved by Assad and his backers ... This bill, which passed the House unanimously last year, will give the U.S. much-needed leverage to help stop the slaughter of more innocent Syrians."

Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) have both been vocal in expressing their concern that a 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force is still being used to justify U.S. military involvement, this time in Syria.

They argue that Congress needs to debate authorizing military involvement in Syria.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) offered his thoughts after he and other U.S. senators met with Tillerson last week, saying, "Tillerson showed admirable candor in admitting that the military strategy was far ahead of the diplomatic strategy in Syria. But this was actually a dramatic understatement. Unless a secret plan exists that Trump is keeping from U.S. senators and his own Secretary of State, there is absolutely no plan for who controls post-ISIS Raqqa, or post-Assad Syria."

On the campaign trail, Trump said members of the U.S.-backed opposition in Syria "are probably worse than Assad." When asked if he would negotiate with Putin to pressure Assad to step aside, Trump said, "I don't think it's that important" to get rid of Assad.

Sherifa Zuhur, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley's Center for Middle Eastern Studies told CBS San Francisco on Friday that Syrians did not choose Assad in a free and fair election and that "Bashar al-Assad, his military and supporting paramilitaries will never allow nor hold free elections ... The supposed difference between the U.S. and Russian position has up to now been that the U.S. recognized these core facts whereas Russia asserted that Bashar was the 'chosen' leader of Syrians, which is patently false."

In 2013, the U.N.'s human rights chief said an inquiry produced evidence that war crimes in Syria were authorized by Assad.

Since the 2011 civil war began, Russia and China have vetoed two attempts at U.N. Security Council sanctions against the Syrian government.

By Hannah Albarazi - Follow her on Twitter: @hannahalbarazi.

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