WASHINGTON — The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley on Sunday declared that the administration does not see peace and stability in Syria with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad still in power.
On Sunday’s "Meet The Press," Haley told host Chuck Todd, "In no way do we look at peace happening in that area with Iranian influence. In no way do we see peace in that area with Russia covering up for Assad. In no way do we see peace in that area with Assad as the head of the Syrian government.”
"We have to make sure that we're pushing that process," she continued. “The political solution has to come together for the good of the people of Syria."
Haley noted that the United States’ first priority is still to defeat ISIS, but that there can be "multiple priorities."
"So you know, of course, it's to defeat ISIS," she said. "I mean, we've got to do that for peace and stability in the area. It's also to get out the Iranian influence, which we think is causing so much friction and worse issues in the area. And then we’ve got to go and make sure that we actually see a leader that will protect his people. And clearly, Assad is not that person."
On Thursday night, President Trump ordered Tomahawk cruise missile strikes on a Syrian airfield in response to what the United States believes was a chemical weapons attack at the hands of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The strikes have raised a slew of questions about the Trump administration’s ultimate goals for Syria. Haley said on Sunday that it was up to the United States to take some burden in reacting to atrocities like this.
"The United States fought for the people of Syria and told Assad, 'No more,'" Haley said. "And I think that's something that was strong for the United States to do. And I think it was needed. I think we desperately needed to send a message that, 'You know what? Russia's not going to have your back anymore. And if they do, we're going to make sure that both of you know that we're not going to settle for it.'"
But Haley also said that it shouldn’t be dependent on the United States to take more military action to achieve what they want to see.
"I think that's dependent on the actors that are at play," said Haley, the former governor of South Carolina. "I mean, this is a very complicated situation. We know there's no easy solution to the crisis that's in Syria. But our focus is to make sure that, you know, we're focused on strengthening the cease fire."
Also on "Meet The Press," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, brought up Haley's comments about Assad and claimed, "I've never been more encouraged by the Trump Administration as I am today," interpreting her remarks as "regime change is now the policy of the Trump Administration."
"I'm glad Trump did this," Graham added. "He is no longer Obama in the eyes of our enemies, but he needs to do more to close the deal. There's a new sheriff in town."
Graham also used some blunt words for the fallout from the strikes, saying, "Assad’s telling Trump by flying from this base: 'F you.'" After missiles struck the airfield, jets were seen taking off again.
Ambassador Haley also questioned Russia's first reactions to the attack. Russia is backing Assad’s regime in Syria’s ongoing civil war.
"You know, the interesting thing, Chuck, is, when this chemical weapons murder happened to so many people, Russia's reaction was not, 'Oh, how horrible,’ or, 'How could they do this to innocent children,' or, 'How awful is that?' Their initial reaction was, 'Assad didn't do it. The Syrian government didn't do it,'" Haley said.
Moscow called the U.S. airstrike an "act of aggression" and an "egregious and obvious violation of international law that cannot be justified."
"Why were they that defensive that quick?" asked Haley. "The idea of the casualties came after. The first priority for them was to cover for Assad."
Graham wants to see more sanctions on Russia, not only for their apparent attempts at interfering with the 2016 election, but also for what he charged as "aiding and abetting the use of chemical weapons by a war criminal, Assad."
The strikes this week were a startling reversal from many of Trump’s comments as a citizen. Over the last several years, he repeatedly warned against United States military intervention into the Syrian conflict, sending tweets like, "We should stay the hell out of Syria, the "rebels" are just as bad as the current regime. WHAT WILL WE GET FOR OUR LIVES AND $ BILLIONS?ZERO."
Haley declined to speculate on where the president was coming from at that point.
"I don't know what his thought process was in 2013," she said. "And I'm not going to attempt to try and explain that. What I can tell you is, through the meetings we had all this week, what you saw was a president that was disgusted by what the Assad regime did to those innocent people."
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Sunday said there was "no change" in the U.S. military position on Syria following Thursday's strike.
"We are asking Russia to fulfill its commitment and we're asking and calling on Bashar al-Assad to cease the use of these weapons," Tillerson told ABC's "This Week." "Other than that, there is no change to our military posture."
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., the former Democratic Vice Presidential nominee and a member of both the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, believes these strikes were unlawful because he says they were not included in a formal approval of force from Congress.
"We don't have a system where the president just gets to launch missiles against anybody they want to," Kaine said on Sunday's "Meet The Press." "They haven't presented a plan to Congress and asked for our approval. That's what they've got to do."
Kaine has been one of the Senate’s most vocal advocates for a new AUMF (Authorization for the Use of Military Force) for military action in the Middle East, and he made very similar claims about military action under the Obama Administration. On the Foreign Relations Committee, Kaine voted to authorize force against Assad in Syria in 2013 after chemical weapons were used.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on "Meet The Press," also pushed for the president to ask Congress for authority for these kinds of strikes, but repeatedly said he wanted them to happen with more international involvement.
"We've got to work with countries around the world for a political solution to get rid of this guy and to finally bring peace and stability to this country, which has been so decimated," Sanders said. "I do not believe, to answer your question, that the president simply has the authority to launch missiles. I think he has got to come to the United States Congress."
Graham, who argues for more American troops involved, believes the president “already has that authority.”
"I think the president has authorization to use force," Graham said. "Assad signed the chemical weapons treaty ban. There’s an agreement with him not to use chemical weapons. What have we learned? That war criminals don’t police each other very well. We have Putin’s regime – a bunch of war criminals – and we expected them to police Assad? That didn’t work out very well. So all these resolutions are limitations on using force."
"We are on sound legal footing here but our strategy has not yet developed," he added.
Kaine also said he doesn't want the policy to be the United States telling Syria, "we're going to change the regime of your leadership."
"That's for Syrians to decide," he said.
"I agree with Ambassador Haley that I don't think there's any political solution to the civil war in Syria that doesn't mean that Assad moves aside because he's tearing up the country. But instead of regime change, what we should focus on is humanitarian relief."