‘Steps are underway’ to remove Assad: US secretary of state

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks with the media at Palm Beach International Airport on April 6, 2017 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by AFP)

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says "steps are underway" to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from office amid reports the Pentagon is presenting a range of possible military options.

Without offering any evidence, the top US diplomat on Thursday afternoon blamed the Syrian government for this week's alleged chemical attack in northwestern Syria that reportedly left more than 70 people dead and dozens more injured.

The foreign-sponsored militants active in the area and some Western officials blamed the attack on the Syrian military whereas Damascus rejected the allegation, insisting it "has never used them [chemical weapons], anytime, anywhere, and will not do so in the future."

Tillerson said the United States is considering an "appropriate response" against the Assad government over the incident that happened in the town of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

He went on to say that Washington and its allies are taking steps aimed at toppling the Syrian leader.

"The process by which Assad would leave is something that requires an international community effort both to first defeat ISIS [Daesh] within Syria, to stabilize the Syrian country to avoid further civil war and then to work collectively with our partners around the world through a political process that would lead to Assad leaving," Tillerson told reporters in Palm Beach, Florida

"Assad’s role in the future is uncertain, clearly, and with the acts that he has taken it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people," he added.

He, however, skirted around questions about the likelihood of a military intervention in Syria.

Meanwhile, hawkish Republican Senator John McCain claimed on Thursday that President Donald Trump told him he would consult with Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster about the Syrian incident.

Republican Senator John McCain

“He said that he was talking to his military advisers, which is what any president would do,” McCain said, adding that the telephone conversation between him and the president happened on Wednesday.

McCain said he does not know what the advisers are recommending to President Trump. “He hadn’t talked to them when I talked to him.”

Trump said during a press conference on Wednesday afternoon the attack “crossed a lot of lines” and that it had caused him to change his approach to the Syrian government.  On Thursday, he went a step ahead and said that “something should happen” to Assad in retaliation for the chemical weapons attack.

The latest remarks of top US officials regarding the Syrian government marked a change of tone for the Trump administration.

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Last week, Trump’s secretary of state, Tillerson, said that the "longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people."

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley also made a similar statement last week regarding the Syrian government, saying that removing Assad from power would no longer be a “priority” of Washington.

US Ambassador to the United Nations NIkki Haley speaks in Washington, March 27, 2017. (Photo by Reuters)

"Our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out," Haley told reporters on March 30. "Our priority is to really look at how do we get things done, who do we need to work with to really make a difference for the people in Syria.”

A day after Haley’s statement, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer stressed that the US must understand the "political reality" in Syria and accept the future of Assad is for Syrians to decide.

But the US policy shifted after Tuesday’s suspected chemical attack in Syria that some observers believe could be a false flag operation to push the United States into a war against the Arab country, and possibly against Russia. President Trump has been trying to improve ties with Moscow since he was elected into office in November last year. 

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