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Administration is "partially to blame" for Syria chemical attack, McCain says

CBS News logo CBS News 9/04/2017 Kathryn Watson
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WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said comments made by people in President Donald Trump’s administration are “partially to blame” for encouraging Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s apparent use of chemical weapons on his people last week. 

McCain responded to remarks that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made at the end of March, before the attack, including comments that the Syrian people would determine Assad’s fate, and that removing him from power isn’t a top priority.

Donald Trump © JIM WATSON / AFP Donald Trump

“I think it probably was partially to blame,” McCain said. “And Secretary Tillerson basically saying the same thing after kind of contradicting himself and then saying the same thing argues vigorously for a plan and a strategy. As I said again, taking this action I support and was important.”

McCain also said he does “not agree” with Tillerson’s position that the U.S. needs to concentrate on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) before it can further address Assad’s purported brutality against his own people, saying ISIS and Assad are “totally connected” issues.

Sen. John McCain appeared on CBS News’ “Face The Nation” on Sunday, April 9, 2017.: ftn-mccain-0409.jpg © CBS News ftn-mccain-0409.jpg

“We will take Mosul,” McCain said. “We will take Raqqa. And we’d better have strategies as to how to handle those places once we have won it. But they’re not disconnected from Bashar Assad and the Al Qaeda – the war crimes that have been taking place.”

“You can’t — to a large degree, Bashar Assad, by polarizing the Syrian people have also given rise to ISIS and Al Qaeda,” McCain continued. “So they are both connected. And I believe that the United States of America can address both at the same time. We can walk and chew gum. We have the capability to do both.”

McCain was responding to comments Tillerson has made that seemed to indicate that last week’s U.S. missile strike on a Syrian airbase in response to the deadly gas attack were as far as Mr. Trump’s administration might go for now. 

“Well, I think what the president did was an excellent first step, and it was a reversal of the last eight years,” McCain said. “And I think it was important. But it’s now vitally important we develop a strategy, we put that strategy in motion, and we bring about peace in the region. And that obviously means that there has to be a cessation of these war crimes.”

McCain said a “one-time deal” won’t be productive, and only going after chemical weapons “ignores the enormity of the problem.”

“A very small percentage of the people who have been slaughtered in Syria have been slaughtered by chemical weapons,” McCain said. “It’s been done by barrel bombs and indiscriminate killing and all the other war crimes that have been committed.”

The insufficiency of Thursday night’s strike was proven almost immediately, McCain said. Hours after the U.S. missile strike on the Shayrat airbase, there were reports that Syrian aircraft took off from the same airbase the U.S. struck. McCain said taking action was “very important,” and he was told there were some recommendations to take out “all six places” where the Syrian Air Force operates.

“But the signal that they’re able to fly almost right away out of the same facility indicates that I don’t think we did as thorough enough job, which would have been cratering the runways,” McCain said. “ And somebody will say, ‘Well, then they can fill in the runways.’ Yeah, and we can crater them again too.”

Mr. Trump responded to criticism about the U.S. strike’s failure to crater the runways, saying they’re too easy to rebuild. 

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