To paraphrase a classic rock anthem: If he stays there will be trouble, but if he goes it might be double. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s status has become a focal point of American policy in the region — but no one seems quite sure what the Trump administration’s bottom line for Assad is. Nikki Haley and Rex Tillerson offered somewhat conflicting views on whether the US would accept an outcome that leaves Assad in place after his use of chemical weapons in Idlib. At least it seemed that way to CNN’s Chris Cillizza:
Depending on which Sunday talk show you watched, you came away with a very different sense of what the Trump Administration’s next steps will be in Syria.
If you watched UN Ambassador Nikki Haley on CNN, you heard her tell “State of the Union” host Jake Tapper that “regime change is something that we think is going to happen because all of the parties are going to see that (Syrian president Bashar al-)Assad is not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria.”
If you caught Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on CBS’s “Face the Nation” you heard something very different. Asked by “Face” host John Dickerson whether removing Assad was a priority for the United States, Tillerson offered this: “Our priority in Syria, John, really hasn’t changed. I think the President has — been quite clear. First and foremost, we must defeat ISIS.”
NBC News seems a bit confused as well:
The New York Daily News adds national security adviser H. R. McMaster to the mix of confusing stances from the White House. McMaster attempted to bridge the apparent gaps between Haley and Tillerson during an appearance on Fox News Sunday:
Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, whose role in the White House has grown in recent weeks, tried to reconcile the viewpoints, saying both Tillerson and Haley were correct.
“What Ambassador Haley pointed out was, it’s very difficult to figure out how a political solution could result from the continuation of the Assad regime,” McMaster said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“We’re not saying that we are the ones who are going to effect that change. What we’re saying is other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions. While people are really anxious to find inconsistencies in those statements, they are in fact very consistent in terms of what is the ultimate political objective in Syria.
“There has to be a degree of simultaneous activity, as well as sequencing the defeat of ISIS first.”
He also criticized Russia, saying its leadership should ask “why they are supporting a regime that is committing mass murder against its own people.”
That’s a pretty good question, actually, one that’s right up there with getting an answer from Russia about its guarantee on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a response on either question. As for effecting regime change, don’t bet on other nations stepping up to do that either. The Sunni nations aligned against Assad have not attempted to intervene in any meaningful way in the western areas of the country after the Obama administration fumbled its “red line” stance, preferring instead to follow American initiative in the east against ISIS. With Russia and Iran defending Assad, they’re content to let the US do the heavy lifting or not having it done at all, as the lack of response to previous uses of chemical weapons by Assad demonstrated amply until last week.
McMaster’s clarification makes it fairly clear that the US position has changed rhetorically in regard to regime change, but not operationally. Until the attack in Idlib, the Trump administration followed the consistent message from the Trump campaign, which is that the US shouldn’t get involved in further regime change at all. We’re not going to topple Assad as Obama and our NATO partners did with Qaddafi and Libya, the administration is now saying, but the civil war won’t end until Assad’s gone either, so … good luck with it. Meanwhile, the US will focus on digging ISIS out of its strongholds, and let the Assad chips fall where they may.
The Russians won’t answer those earlier questions, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t provided an answer of another sort. The Kremlin announced today that an expected meeting between Tillerson and Vladimir Putin is no longer on the schedule, presumably in response to the airstrikes and tough talk from Haley and Tillerson:
The Kremlin said on Monday that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will not meet President Vladimir Putin when he visits Moscow on Wednesday, a move that could point to tensions over a U.S. missile attack on a Syrian air base last week.
John Kerry, Tillerson’s predecessor, often met Putin as well as the Russian foreign minister when he visited Moscow, and Putin granted several audiences to the Texan when he ran oil major Exxon Mobil before taking his current job. …
But Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on Monday that no such meeting was planned, suggesting Tillerson will follow strict diplomatic protocol and only meet his direct counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
“We have not announced any such meetings and right now there is no meeting with Tillerson in the president’s diary,” Peskov told reporters on a conference call.
Maybe Lavrov will bring a reset button. The snub — if it is such, and it certainly seems to be — is one indication that Russia has gotten the message after the Idlib attack.
Addendum: Tillerson’s not very happy with Marco Rubio’s suggestion that the earlier position from the Trump administration gave Assad the impression that he could act with impunity:
— Face The Nation (@FaceTheNation) April 9, 2017
“I think that’s a regrettable comment on the part of Senator Rubio,” Tillerson said on CBS’s “Face The Nation.” …
“This was a continuation of a series of chemical weapons attack by Bashar al-Assad,” Tillerson told CBS on Sunday. “This was not the first. As you well know, there were two similar attacks in March. March the 25th, March the 30th in Hama. So this was yet another instance of Bashar al-Assad’s continued violation of the chemical weapons agreements.”
There were others during the Obama administration, too. Still, it seems that the rhetorical changes and the attack on the Shayrat air base intends to send a sterner message.