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Sen. Cotton: White House should use force to remove Assad

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Sen. Tom Cotton says the United States needs to "be prepared to keep all options on the table" with Syria.

Sen. Tom Cotton says the United States needs to “be prepared to keep all options on the table” with Syria. | AP Photo

Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton said the Trump administration should use military or covert action in Syria in order to oust Syrian president Bashar Assad in response to an apparent chemical weapons airstrike in the northern part of the country that left at least 72 people dead.

“Bashar al-Assad must ultimately go,” he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Wednesday. “It may not be tomorrow, it may not be next week, ISIS may be our more immediate threat from Syria, but we cannot be safe along as the Assad-Iran-Russia axis is in charge in Syria.”

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“I think we have to be prepared to keep all options on the table — whether it’s military action or whether its classified covert activities as well,” Cotton added. “But ultimately we cannot expect to be safe ourselves from the threats emanating from Middle East as long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power.

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The comments from the Republican legislator, who is a member of the Armed Services Committee, is a departure from the official stance of the White House, which as of last week was to step back from the conflict and acknowledge instead that Assad’s control of Syria was “a political reality.” Last week, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley declared that ousting Assad was no longer a White House priority, as did Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said al-Assad’s fate “will be decided by the Syrian people.”

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That stance has been met with criticism from those who worry the Trump administration will not be hard enough on Syria due Russia’s involvement in the region, and its support of Assad. Some critics have suggested that the White House’s official stance on Syria emboldened the Syrian president.

On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer called the chemical weapons attacks “reprehensible” and blamed the past administration for its occurrence. In 2013, then-President Barack Obama was met with fierce criticism from conservatives after he chose not to engage in military action against the Syrian government for using chemical weapons against civilians, instead negotiating for the Syrian government to surrender its stockpile of chemical weapons.

Cotton said Wednesday that he would urge Trump to adopt the stated policy of the Obama administration, which was that Assad needed to relinquish power.

It’s unclear how the Trump administration will move forward, legislators acknowledged Wednesday.

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“We don’t have any idea what the Trump administration wants to do about this,” Utah Sen. Mike Lee said on CNN. “The one thing I do know and the one thing I think you will find a great deal of consensus around is if the Trump administration does want to do anything by way of intervening military, he needs to come to Congress with a plan and present that to Congress.”

Additional reporting by Aidan Quigley.

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