WASHINGTON, April 12, (Agencies): President Donald Trump is appearing to rule out deeper American military intervention in Syria beyond retaliatory strikes if Syrian President Bashar Assad continues his assault on civilians with chemical weapons. “Are we going to get involved with Syria? No,” Trump told Fox Business News in an interview that aired Wednesday.
Trumps comments come less than a week after he ordered missile strikes on a Syrian airfield after US evidence indicated that Assad killed civilians using the nerve agent sarin. White House spokesman Sean Spicer on Wednesday said that the president was not ruling out another attack on Syrian government installations if Assad continued to use chemical weapons against civilians But Spicer said “going in and occupying Syria for the express purpose of regime change is something the president has been very clear on.” Trump also warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that in backing Assad, Putin was supporting someone who is “truly an evil person.” “I think it’s very bad for Russia. I think it’s very bad for mankind.
It’s very bad for this world,” Trump told Fox Business News. Later Wednesday, Trump planned to hold talks at the White House with Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretarygeneral, while Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow. Since Trump took office in January, he has been confronted by European allies who have fear his administration will go easy on Russia. During his 2016 campaign, Trump said he would decide whether to honor the commitment to protect the Baltic republics against Russian aggression, based on whether those countries “have fulfilled their obligations to us.” He has since made his support of NATO allies clear, but has reiterated his stance that European members need to meet their end of the bargain if they are to continue benefiting from the military alliance.
The Trump administration says it is spending a disproportionate share on defense compared with its 27 partners, and that it expects action by the time Trump meets with other alliance leaders on May 25. NATO leaders pledged in 2014 to halt defense spending cuts and move toward a guideline target of 2 percent of gross domestic product within a decade.
Only four other nations currently meet the target: Britain, Estonia, Greece and Poland. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a military alliance of European and North American democracies created after World War II to strengthen international cooperation as a counter the rise of the Soviet Union. The United States, NATO’s most powerful member, spends more on defense than all the others combined — 3.61 percent of GDP in 2016, according to NATO estimates. US spending, too, has tapered off in recent years. Trump on Tuesday signed off on Montenegro’s upcoming accession into NATO, helping pave the way for the alliance’s expansion in the Balkans. Russia strongly opposes the move in a region it considers part of its strategic sphere of interest.
White House officials said Wednesday that there is credible evidence pointing to Russian interference in Montenegro’s election last October. Putin told state-run Mir television that relations between Moscow and Washington have deteriorated in the early months of Trump’s presidency. “It can be said that the level of trust at the working level, especially at the military level, has not become better but most likely has degraded,” Putin said in an interview broadcast Wednesday. Putin’s spokesman said Putin may meet with Tillerson “if it is decided” that Putin needs to be briefed on the Tillerson-Lavrov talks. Trump administration accused Russia on Tuesday of trying to shield Syria’s government from blame for the deadly gas attack, as Tillerson brought a Western message to Moscow condemning its support for President Bashar al-Assad. Senior White House officials, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, said Assad’s government carried out the April 4 sarin nerve gas attack on civilians in Syria’s Idlib province that killed 87 people, including many children, to put pressure on rebels making advances in the area. Russia has defended the Syrian leader against US allegations that his forces carried out the attack, saying there was no evidence.
Russia has blamed Syrian rebels. “It’s clear that the Russians are trying to cover up what happened there,” one White House official said. White House spokesman Sean Spicer later told reporters that the facts backed up the US version of events. “Russia is on an island when it comes to its support of Syria or its lack of, frankly, acknowledgment of what happened,” he told reporters. However, at the same briefing, Spicer drew criticism after he sought to underscore the ghastliness of the gas attack by saying: “You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” Nazi Germany used gas chambers to kill millions of Jews during the Holocaust. Spicer later apologized and said he should not have made the comparison. “It was a mistake. I shouldn’t have done it and I won’t do it again,” Spicer told CNN in an interview. “It was inappropriate and insensitive.” The White House officials said Russia has frequently offered multiple, conflicting accounts of Syrian government aggression including the incident in the village of Khan Sheikhoun to sow doubt within the international community. The United States launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield on Thursday to retaliate after the attack. The strikes thrust Trump, who came to power in January calling for warmer ties with Russia, and his administration into confrontation with Moscow.
Chinese President Xi Jinping told Trump in a telephone call on Wednesday that “any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable” and urged a political solution for Syria, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said of the telephone exchange. “(We) must persevere with moving towards a political solution for the Syria issue. It is very important that the United Nations Security Council maintains unity on the Syria issue. (I) hope the Security Council can speak with a single voice,” CCTV cited Xi as saying. Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said on Tuesday she thought Russia knew about the chemical attack in advance. “They didn’t look shocked. They didn’t look surprised. They were so quick to defend. And then the evidence comes out, and we see exactly what it is and we know exactly what the environment was.
Then you realize,” she said on CNN. US intelligence indicates that the chemical agent in the attack was delivered by Syrian Su-22 aircraft that took off from the Shayrat airfield, according to a White House report given to reporters. In a four-page document, the White House sought to rebut many of Moscow’s claims about the circumstances of the attack. It said the Syrian planes were in the vicinity of Khan Sheikhoun about 20 minutes before the attack and left shortly afterward.