The Slatest

Does Trump Want Syria’s Assad to Go? Depends Who You Ask.

A Syrian man walks past posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on a shop front in the capital Damascus on Jan. 3.

Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

It seems the White House needs to work harder at unifying its message as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed to put forward different views about the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Days after President Trump ordered missile strikes against a Syrian air base, the apparent differences of opinion appear to highlight how little we know about whether Trump is really going to be changing the U.S. policy toward Syria.

Speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press, Haley said that “in no way do we see peace in that area with Assad as the head of the Syrian government.” Haley made clear that the first priority for the United States is still to “defeat ISIS.” But “we’ve got to go and make sure that we actually see a leader that will protect his people,” she added. And clearly, “Assad is not that person.” She espoused a similar message on CNN, which declared that it was an “extraordinary U-turn” in the Trump administration’s stance on Assad.

Not so fast. Speaking to ABC’s This Week, Tillerson emphasized there was “no change” in the U.S. military stance toward Syria. As far as Tillerson is concerned, the U.S. priority is still to defeat ISIS and it is up to the Syrian people “to decide the fate of Bashar al-Assad.” He emphasized that point on CBS’s Face the Nation, noting that the administration is “hopeful … we can navigate a political outcome in which the Syrian people, in fact, will determine Bashar al-Assad’s fate and his legitimacy.”

It was up to National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster to reconcile the two views, and he tried to insist there was no real difference of opinion. “What Ambassador Haley pointed out is it’s very difficult to understand how a political solution could result from the continuation of the Assad regime,” McMaster said. But, “We are not saying that we are the ones who are going to affect that change.”

The mixed signals on Assad’s future came as top White House officials all did seem to agree on increasing pressure on Russia. Haley, for example, questioned why Moscow rushed to Syria’s defense so soon after the chemical weapons attack. “Why were they that defensive that quick?” asked Haley. “The idea of the casualties came after. The first priority for them was to cover for Assad.” Although Tillerson said he has not seen “any hard evidence” that Russia was involved in carrying out the attack, he did accuse Moscow of failing to keep its commitment to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. Tillerson said he would bring up the issue when he meets with his Russian counterpart this week for what is sure to be a less-than-comfortable sit-down.