White House press secretary Sean Spicer made clear Monday that defeating the terrorist group ISIS – not ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – is the top priority for the Trump administration.
President Donald Trump’s strike on Syria last week had people wondering whether the move signaled a shift in US policy toward Assad, the authoritarian ruler who has committed atrocities against his own people. The strike on Shayrat airfield and nearby Syrian military infrastructure was in response to a chemical attack attributed to the Assad regime that killed at least 80 people in northwestern Syria on Tuesday.
But Spicer said at Monday’s press briefing that defeating ISIS remains the administration’s first priority in Syria.
“You can’t imagine a stable and peaceful Syria with Assad in charge,” Spicer said. “I don’t think that’s a scenario that is possible. But I think that the first step in that has to be that the region, and Syria in particular, are stable. You can’t have ISIS marching through Syria and worry mostly about who’s in charge right now.”
Spicer said the US must make sure that “our national security is the first and foremost reason that we have to act.”
“As ISIS is proliferating and chemicals of mass destruction are on the rise there, we’ve got to contain that,” he said. “Then once that’s done I think we can apply political, economic, and diplomatic pressure for regime change. … The first priority is still the containment of ISIS and the conflicts that are occurring.”
When asked whether Trump would be spurred to act in response to conventional warfare from the Assad regime, rather than just chemical warfare, Spicer said, “If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb in to innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president. That is unacceptable.”
This policy is at odds with what Middle East experts say is necessary to defeat ISIS, whose presence in Syria is fostered by Assad’s continued hold on power.
“The connection between Assad’s atrocities against mainly Sunni Arab civilians and the ability of ISIS and other Islamist extremists to recruit and prosper is well-established,” Fred Hof, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and former US special adviser on Syria, told Business Insider earlier this year.
“What’s been lacking is a strategy that recognizes and acts upon the linkage – the symbiotic relationship – between a murderous Assad regime and the extremist groups it has helped spawn.”
Hof noted that “a strategy that separates Assad and ISIS would be doomed to failure.”
“Assad and ISIS are joined at the hip,” he said.
As long as Assad is attacking his own people, ISIS, which fights the Assad regime, will use these atrocities to grow its ranks further and further. And Assad will be reluctant to wipe out ISIS because the real threat to his authority comes from moderate rebels who could work with the West to overthrow him.
The civil war in Syria has been raging on for almost six years as rebels – some of whom are Islamist terrorists – fight to oust Assad, whose regime has been responsible for more civilian deaths than any terror group in the country.