US National Security Adviser HR McMaster accused Russia and Iran of being “complicit” in the Assad regime's atrocities, in an emphatic speech made seven years since the start of the Syrian war.
Gen McMaster gave the keynote speech at the Holocaust Museum’s day of remembrance for Syria on Thursday, committing the US to act and hold the parties responsible.
“Remembrance is only the first step, we also must act to protect victims and to hold all responsible parties accountable,” he said. “If we are to fulfil our promise of ‘Never Again’, we must also act to protect victims and to hold all responsible parties accountable.”
The US official said that neither the Assad regime nor its supporters should have impunity for their crimes.
“It is time to impose serious political and economic consequences on Moscow and Tehran,” he said, calling on the international community to counter Iran’s destabilising activities in Syria and across the region.
Since 2012, General McMaster said that "Iran has provided over $16 billion to the Assad regime and to other proxies in Syria Iraq and Yemen".
“Tehran is also transporting foreign Shiite militants and weapons from Iran to Syria by illegal flights including civilian Iranian airlines,” he noted. This constitutes a violation of UN resolutions and the nuclear deal reached with Iran in 2015 and that the Trump administration is reviewing before a May deadline.
“Iran’s goal is to secure a permanent military foothold in Syria which would threaten Israel, undermine US interests and strengthen its proxy forces that it uses to weaken Arab states and foment violence” Mr McMaster said.
He confirmed that the Trump administration is documenting atrocities in Syria and declassifying intelligence that “exposes Assad’s horrific crimes”, defeating terrorism and deterring against chemical weapons use. These efforts are being impeded by Moscow and Tehran, he told his audience in Washington.
Mr McMaster also made reference to Syria’s civil defence organization, also known as the White Helmets, for saving lives, and recited names of two children who died in chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime. “Let us all promise to remember, and to act,” he said.
The speech came as reports emerged of Mr McMaster's imminent exit from the White House and potential return to the military. The Washington Post reported late on Thursday that Donald Trump has decided to remove his national security adviser. The report said Mr Trump complained [to chief of staff John Kelly "that Mr McMaster is too rigid and that his briefings go on too long and seem irrelevant."
According to the same report, the names being discussed as a replacement for Mr McMaster include “John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, and Keith Kellogg, the chief of staff of the National Security Council.” Mr Bolton was at the White House last Tuesday and met Mr Trump, according to Vanity Fair.
A US official told The National that Mr McMaster has been seeking to leave for almost six months now. “He wants to return to the army, and be a four-star general”, the source said. That could mean waiting for a high-ranking military appointment to open before he exits.
The White House denied the report, insisting Mr McMaster is staying, Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted on Thursday night that the rumour was untrue: "Just spoke to @POTUS and Gen. H.R. McMaster - contrary to reports they have a good working relationship and there are no changes at the NSC."
Mr McMaster’s tough talk on Syria also coincides with the Trump administration’s own reviews of its options in the war. High-level sources in Washington told The National that a coordinated US-EU efforts to gather evidence on chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime recently in eastern Ghouta.
They revealed that the Trump administration is considering a whole set of options including military strikes in Syria if such evidence is proven, but that no final decision has been made.
Also on Thursday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed two bipartisan measures to sanction Iran for serious human rights abuses, and limit assistance for areas of Syria controlled by Assad.