'Assad is an animal' trends among Syrian social media users after Donald Trump comments

US President declares his country will ‘not go into Syria’ as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson heads to Moscow to try to persuade Russia to withdraw backing for Syrian leader

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The Independent Online

The US President Donald Trump has said that the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is an “evil person” and an “animal” in an interview with Fox Business Network, comments that have caused a stir with Syrians both inside and outside the country.

Mr Trump is increasing pressure on the Russian President Vladimir Putin to abandon his support for Mr Assad in the wake of a suspected chemical attack by the Syrian regime which killed more than 80 people.

The President made the comments in an interview broadcast early on Wednesday ahead of Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow, where the Secretary of State is due to meet with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. It is unclear whether he will meet with Mr Putin, who rarely announces high-profile visits in advance. 

Spicer slips up in press briefing and says America's aim is to destabilise Syria

“If Russia didn’t go in and back this animal [Assad], you wouldn’t have a problem right now,” Mr Trump told interviewer Maria Bartiromo, adding that Mr Putin’s support for the dictator is “very bad for Russia” and “very bad for mankind.”

After the interview aired, Mr Trump’s comments were picked up by Syrians online – most of whom found the translation amusing, as to call someone an animal “sounds even more insulting (and funny) in Arabic,” as one Twitter user pointed out. 

The hashtag "Assad is an animal" trended on social media networks worldwide as thousands of people discussed what Mr Trump said. 

“It’s insulting to animals,” one person posted. “The most refreshing hashtag since so long… thanks [Donald Trump] you made my day,” said another.

While the hashtag was mainly used as a springboard for jokes, the Syrian leader’s role in Syria’s six-year-old civil war, which has left more than half a million people dead, was not a laughing matter for many. “[It’s] insulting to animals” and “Animals can’t be criminals” were two sentiments widely circulated in posts on Twitter and Facebook.

Despite initial indications of warmed ties between the US and Russia following Mr Trump’s arrival in the White House in January, relations between the two superpowers have reached Cold War levels of tension following the chemical incident in the village of Khan Sheikhoun, which a US official went as far as to say Moscow had prior knowledge of.

U.S. airstrikes on Syria, explained

Damascus and Moscow have denied the regime attacked the village with chemical weapons, maintaining that the casualties were caused by gases released after an al-Qaeda-affiliated ammunitions depot was hit by conventional munitions in a legitimate government air raid.

The US retaliated with a barrage of 59 Tomahawk missiles which struck the regime-operated Shayrat airbase near Homs on Friday.

The attack – which marked the first direct action taken by the US against the Syrian government in more than six years of the civil war – killed six soldiers and caused some damage to jets, runways and hangars, but has had little impact on the Assad air force’s capabilities overall.

Despite ordering the strike, described by the White House as a “warning shot” , Mr Trump told Fox that the US has no plans to carry out any further direct action against Mr Assad in Syria. 

Moscow reiterated on Wednesday that it believed the US strike on Shayrat to be illegal under international law. 

Ahead of Mr Tillerson's arrival in Moscow, Russia's deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said the Kremlin was still struggling to understand the Trump administration's Syria policy, including its plans for “stability zones” or “no fly zones” after Isis is defeated.

President Trump’s administration had up until last week prioritised defeating Isis as the US’s main focus in the conflict, rather than removing Mr Assad from power.

“Overall, the US administration's stance on Syria is still a mystery to us,” Mr Ryabkov told Russian state media.