The Trump administration has in recent days sent highly conflicting signals about whether it supports regime change in Syria and what its red line would be for taking further military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The mixed messaging comes after President Donald Trump ordered the US Navy to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at an airfield believed to have been used by Assad’s military to launch a deadly chemical-weapons attack last week.
The US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and national security adviser H.R. McMaster took to the Sunday talk shows to defend Trump’s decision. But they could not seem to agree on whether Trump supported removing Assad from power — a policy the Obama administration touted but never acted upon.
In an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Haley said “getting Assad out is not the only priority.” But she added that “we don’t see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there” and that “regime change is something that we think is going to happen.”
McMaster, meanwhile, said on Fox News that while he supported removing Assad, the US was “not going to be the ones who effect that change.”
Tillerson told ABC that that the administration opposed “violent change at the top,” which would make it “very difficult to create the conditions for stability longer term.”
But he appeared to reverse that comment on Monday, telling reporters that the US will “rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.”
Also on Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer seemed to convey two separate policies in one briefing.
“We’re not just going to become the world’s policeman running around the country — running around the world,” Spicer told reporters. “It’s our national security first and foremost.” But he then signalled a potentially major shift
in the US’ “red line” for intervention in Syria: the use of barrel bombs.
“The sight of people being gassed and blown away by barrel bombs ensures that if we see this kind of action again, we hold open the possibility of future action,” Spicer said.
He then quickly walked back that claim, telling Business Insider in a statement that “nothing has changed” in the administration’s policy.
Further confusion ensued Tuesday, after the White House disputed the accuracy of an Associated Press report that said the US had concluded that Russia knew about the chemical-weapons attack in advance.
“There is no consensus within the American intelligence community that Russia had foreknowledge of the attack,” a senior administration official said in a statement Tuesday.
Robert Ford, the former US ambassador to Syria who is now a fellow at the Middle East Institute, said that the Trump White House “is still new,” and simply needs more practice coordinating its messaging. He added that the administration “still has many top foreign policy and defence jobs unfilled, and only in the past 10 days has had to focus time from the busy top-level officials on Syria.”
“One thing new administrations have to learn to do is tightly coordinate talking points among top officials,” Ford said. “It’s not a surprise that the Trump administration also has to learn to do this. People like McMaster, Tillerson and Haley are pros, and they will learn how to do it too.”
Fred Hof, a former special adviser on the Syria transition under President Barack Obama, argued that “the cacophony of views reflects the fact that the [Syria] policy itself — the objectives and the strategy for achieving them — is not yet set.”
He echoed Ford’s point, however, in saying the messaging would likely become more cohesive as the White House gets its footing.
“I’m confident that H.R. McMaster will get control of the interagency process and orchestrate a coherent approach for the president to examine, modify if necessary, and ultimately approve and implement,” he said.
“This will take time,” he added. “Meanwhile, it’s important for the president, Gen. McMaster, and Secretaries Tillerson and Mattis to agree on basic talking points to be used publicly by the administration across the board. Discipline in this area is essential.”
One voice has been conspicuously absent, however, from discussions of the administration’s goals in Syria and broader foreign policy doctrine: Trump’s.
Nearly three months into his presidency — and less than two weeks after both Tillerson and Haley said that removing Assad was no longer a priority for the US — Trump’s decision to wade into an extraordinarily crowded and complex battlefield has shifted to the side the “America First” platform on which he campaigned.
Trump has not commented on Syria apart from a brief statement the night he ordered the cruise missile strike and a tweet defending the US military’s decision not to crater the airfield’s runways. He also congratulated the US military on Twitter for “representing the US — and the world — so well in the Syria attack.”
Trump has remained quiet, however, even as the war of words between Tillerson and Russian President Vladimir Putin has heated up.
Tillerson said on Tuesday morning that Russia is either “incompetent” or has “failed” to hold up its end of the deal to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons and needed to choose whether to abandon or “maintain its alliance” with Assad.
Putin, who has slammed the US’ strike on Assad as an “aggressive” act,” continued to deny that the Syrian army had chemical weapons and was responsible for the attack last week.
“This reminds me strongly of the events in 2003, when the US representatives demonstrated at the UN Security Council session the presumed chemical weapons found in Iraq,” Putin told reporters during a joint press conference with Italian President Sergio Mattarella on Tuesday.
Tillerson is due to meet today with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow. But Ford cautioned against expectations that the US will wade deeper into the war in an attempt to oust Assad.
“The Syrian opposition and its friends would be making a terrible mistake thinking that Trump’s team is going to shift to regime-change mode,” Ford said.
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