National security adviser H.R. McMaster on Thursday called for further U.S. action against Russia as punishment for crimes in Syria, in a fiery address at an event marking the seventh year of the Syrian Civil War.
McMaster also forcefully condemned the Syrian government and its allies in Iran, advocating a more robust international response. The address comes as administration officials are showing more willingness to go further than President Donald Trump in attacking Moscow and as reports swirl about McMaster’s potential ouster from the West Wing for a national security adviser who is more deferential to the president.
After outlining steps the U.S. has taken to aid victims of the Syrian conflict and detailing Iran’s aid to the government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, McMaster turned his attention to Moscow.
“Russia is also complicit in Assad’s atrocities,” he declared. “The Russian government has bombed civilian areas and provided political cover for Assad’s crimes.”
He slammed Russia for carrying out more than 100 bombing missions in the rebel-held area of Eastern Ghouta and invoked the recent chemical attack on a former spy in southern England as examples of Russian aggression. The U.S. on Thursday morning joined Britain, France and Germany in blaming Russia for the attack in a rare joint statement.
But statements, McMaster said, do not go far enough.
“If Iran and Russia do not stop enabling the regime’s atrocities and adhere to U.N. Security Council resolutions, all nations must respond more forcibly than simply issuing strong statements,” McMaster said. “It is time to impose serious political and economic consequences on Moscow and Tehran. Assad should not have impunity for his crimes, and neither should his sponsors.”
The speech came at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum as part of a program on the Syrian crisis titled “Is the Worst Yet to Come?” The event coincided with the publication of a report by the museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide that found that the crisis “is entering a new phase in which civilians will face heightened risks of mass atrocities.” The report accuses Assad’s government, along with Syrian allies Russia and Iran, of committing atrocities against civilians.
McMaster’s speech came as reports swirl about his potential ouster, and just days after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — who had a habit of taking more aggressive stances than the White House — was fired by the president via Twitter. McMaster replaced fired national security adviser Michael Flynn in February 2017 but has been known to clash with Trump over a broad array of issues.
At the museum, he invoked the memory of the Holocaust as he called for greater international action in the region.
“We know that these horrors can happen again,” he said. “But remembrance is only the first step. We cannot stop at remembrance alone. If we are to fulfill our promise — ‘Never again’ — we must also act to protect victims and hold all responsible parties accountable. Unfortunately, today, in Syria, we are confronted once more with some of the worst atrocities known to man.”
McMaster has clashed with Trump on the Iran nuclear deal and strategy for the Afghanistan conflict, but he is not alone in going further than the president in suggesting a stronger stance toward Russia. Trump, however, has shown reluctance to criticize President Vladimir Putin and the Russian leadership. And he has repeatedly castigated U.S. investigators for examining Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, which the intelligence community concluded was aimed at helping Trump.
McMaster, of course, can do only so much in matching the rhetoric at the event with action, as his tenuous status in the West Wing shows.