In one week, the Trump administration has made a 180-degree turnaround when it comes to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Days after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that the Assad regime was a “political reality,” White House officials are now condemning both President Assad and his foreign sponsors.
However, Trump administration personnel appear to sending mixed signals about the fate of Assad in Syria. Top White House officials hit the talk show circuit Sunday, offering varying visions for Syria’s future.
Regime change in Syria is “inevitable,” U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley told CNN’s Jake Tapper Sunday.
"Getting Assad out is not the only priority. So what we're trying to do is obviously defeat ISIS. Secondly, we don't see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there. Thirdly, get the Iranian influence out. And then finally move towards a political solution, because at the end of the day this is a complicated situation. There are no easy answers, and a political solution is going to have to happen."
While Haley stopped short of explicitly supporting regime change, her words plainly suggested that Assad must go.
In contrast, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson assumed a more ambivalent tone when it came to Assad.
“Our priority is first the defeat of ISIS,” Tillerson told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos.
“Once we can eliminate the battle against ISIS, conclude that, and it is going quite well, then we hope to turn our attention to cease-fire agreements between the regime and opposition forces,” he said, adding:
"In that regard, we are hopeful that we can work with Russia and use their influence to achieve areas of stabilization throughout Syria and create the conditions for a political process through Geneva in which we can engage all of the parties on the way forward, and it is through that political process that we believe the Syrian people will lawfully be able to decide the fate of Bashar al-Assad."
In another interview on CBS's Face the Nation, Tillerson stated that the White House hopes to "navigate a political outcome in which the Syrian people in fact will determine Bashar al-Assad's fate and his legitimacy.”
“The United States' own founding principles are self-determination,” noted America’s chief diplomat in an apparent justification for leaving Assad in power.
When pressed by host John Dickerson, Tillerson shied away from explaining how a people stripped of power can overthrow a ruthless dictator.
"It's important that we keep our priorities straight, and we believe that the first priority is the defeat of ISIS," he replied. "Once the ISIS threat has been reduced or eliminated, I think we can turn our attention directly to stabilizing the situation in Syria."
With Tillerson and Haley seemingly contradicting each other, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster was forced to reconcile the two positions in an interview with Fox News Sunday.
“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 told host Chris Wallace. “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. Russia should ask themselves … why are we supporting this murderous regime that is committing mass murder of its own population and using the most heinous weapons available?”
"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."
However, McMaster didn’t mince his words when it came to the Assad regime’s foreign backers.
As “sponsors," Russia and Iran are enabling President Bashar al-Assad's "campaign of mass murder against his own civilians,” he asserted.
During the presidential campaign, Trump dismissed the idea of regime change in Syria as a misguided use of American resources. Today, it’s unclear where his administration stands on the issue.