Haley vs. Tillerson: Would the U.S. accept a peace deal in Syria that leaves Assad in charge?

This sure sounds like a “no” from Haley…

…and this sure sounds like a “maybe” from Tillerson. Note the word “sustained.”

He went on to say that “it is through that political process that we believe the Syrian people will lawfully be able to decide the fate of Bashar al-Assad.” So if Syrians want Assad to stay, he’ll stay? Does this administration support regime change or not? This week, I mean. The policy seems to change weekly, after all.

Normally you’d assume that Tillerson, as Secretary of State, carries more weight than Haley, but it’s anyone’s guess how the diplomatic chain of command in the Trump administration actually operates (Trump on top, then Kushner, Tillerson, Haley, and McMaster in some order) or even whether the different players are coordinating their messages. There was some agreement this morning: Both Tillerson and Haley said that ISIS needs to be defeated first, as a threshold matter. Maybe the way to bridge the gap between them on Assad is to focus on the fact that they’re both speaking pragmatically rather than on principle. Haley’s not saying the U.S. categorically refuses to accept Assad remaining in power because of his atrocities (I think); she’s saying that, as a practical matter, it’s impossible to believe that his enemies in Syria would agree to a peace deal at this point that leaves him in charge. Tillerson seems to find it more believable, or at least he wants to project that assumption in order to give Russia and Iran, Assad’s sponsors, more of a reason to come to the table. The disagreement between Haley and Tillerson may not be substantive so much as it is tactical.

McMaster tried to square the circle in his own TV appearance this morning:

“What Ambassador Haley pointed out is it’s very difficult to understand how a political solution [to the Syrian civil war] could result from a continuation of the [Bashar al-Assad] regime,” McMaster told Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace.

“Now, we’re not saying we are the ones to effect that change,” he continued. “What we’re saying is other countries should ask themselves some hard questions. Russia should ask themselves, ‘What are we doing here? Why are we supporting this murderous regime that is committing mass murder of its own population and using the most heinous weapons available?'”

“Very difficult” to imagine Assad staying, but not impossible — and we’re not going to be the ones who oust him. Asked what America’s goals are in the war, McMaster named ISIS’s defeat as top priority followed by “a significant change in the nature of the Assad regime and its behavior in particular.” So there’s another inducement to Russia and Iran — get Assad to lay off the chemical weapons and stick to barrel bombs, attacks on hospitals, and other more pedestrian atrocities and maybe we’ll be more amenable to a peace deal that leaves him in charge of a rump Alawite state on the Mediterranean coast. That’s my best shot at teasing out a coherent regime-change policy from this hash.

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