Ambassador Nikki Haley’s made the comments at the U.N. headquarters in New York City on Monday during a press conference held to mark the beginning of the United States’ presidency of the U.N. Security Council.
“We have no love for Assad. We’ve made that very clear,” she said, according to Reuters. “We think that he has been a hindrance to peace for a long time. He’s a war criminal. What he’s done to his people is nothing more than disgusting.”
Her statements came just days after both she and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stirred controversy when they said the U.S. was no longer trying to remove Assad from power and may work with him to help fight the Islamic State. The comments represented a sharp departure from the strategy of former President Barack Obama, whose administration for years worked to remove the Syrian dictator from power.
Haley told reporters on Thursday that the plan has changed, and the United States’ “priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”
“Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No,” she said. “What we are going to focus on is putting the pressure in there so that we can start to make a change in Syria.”
“Their suggestion that Assad can stay in power appears to be just as devoid of strategy as President Obama’s pronouncements that ‘Assad must go,’” McCain said in a statement. “Once again, U.S. policy in Syria is being presented piecemeal in press statements without any definition of success, let alone a realistic plan to achieve it.”
“...This overlooks the tragic reality that the Syrian people cannot decide the fate of Assad or the future of their country when they are being slaughtered by Assad,” he added.
The White House stood by Haley and Tillerson following the statements.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said at a press briefing that the focus was now on defeating the Islamic State militant group. “The United States has profound priorities in Syria and Iraq and we’ve made it clear that counterterrorism, particularly the defeat of ISIS, is foremost among those priorities,” he said.