US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shake hands prior to their talks in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, April 12, 2014. Tillerson's Moscow talks hinge on new US leverage over Syria. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is appearing to rule out deeper American military intervention in Syria beyond retaliatory strikes if Syrian President Bashar Assad continues his assault on civilians with chemical weapons.
"Are we going to get involved with Syria? No," Trump told Fox Business News in an interview that aired Wednesday.
Trumps comments come less than a week after he ordered missile strikes on a Syrian airfield after U.S. evidence indicated that Assad killed civilians using the nerve agent sarin.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer on Wednesday said that the president was not ruling out another attack on Syrian government installations if Assad continued to use chemical weapons against civilians.
But Spicer said "going in and occupying Syria for the express purpose of regime change is something the president has been very clear on."
Trump also warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that in backing Assad, Putin was supporting someone who is "truly an evil person."
"I think it's very bad for Russia. I think it's very bad for mankind. It's very bad for this world," Trump told Fox Business News.
Later Wednesday, Trump planned to hold talks at the White House with Jens Stoltenberg, NATO's secretary-general, while Trump's secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow.
Since Trump took office in January, he has been confronted by European allies who have fear his administration will go easy on Russia. During his 2016 campaign, Trump said he would decide whether to honor the commitment to protect the Baltic republics against Russian aggression, based on whether those countries "have fulfilled their obligations to us."
He has since made his support of NATO allies clear, but has reiterated his stance that European members need to meet their end of the bargain if they are to continue benefiting from the military alliance.
The Trump administration says it is spending a disproportionate share on defense compared with its 27 partners, and that it expects action by the time Trump meets with other alliance leaders on May 25.
NATO leaders pledged in 2014 to halt defense spending cuts and move toward a guideline target of 2 percent of gross domestic product within a decade. Only four other nations currently meet the target: Britain, Estonia, Greece and Poland.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a military alliance of European and North American democracies created after World War II to strengthen international cooperation as a counter the rise of the Soviet Union.
The United States, NATO's most powerful member, spends more on defense than all the others combined — 3.61 percent of GDP in 2016, according to NATO estimates. U.S. spending, too, has tapered off in recent years.
Trump on Tuesday signed off on Montenegro's upcoming accession into NATO, helping pave the way for the alliance's expansion in the Balkans. Russia strongly opposes the move in a region it considers part of its strategic sphere of interest.
White House officials said Wednesday that there is credible evidence pointing to Russian interference in Montenegro's election last October.
Putin told state-run Mir television that relations between Moscow and Washington have deteriorated in the early months of Trump's presidency. "It can be said that the level of trust at the working level, especially at the military level, has not become better but most likely has degraded," Putin said in an interview broadcast Wednesday.
Putin's spokesman said Putin may meet with Tillerson "if it is decided" that Putin needs to be briefed on the Tillerson-Lavrov talks.Associated Press