In the wake of President Trump's ordering missile strikes against a Syrian air base, senior U.S. officials appear to be sending mixed signals on the administration’s stance toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on ABC's "This Week" Sunday that there was "no change" in the U.S. military posture toward Syria despite the Thursday airstrike against a Syrian air base in response to a chemical attack days earlier that killed at least 87 civilians.
The U.S. strike, conducted against the air base from which the U.S. believes the aircraft carrying chemical weapons flew from, was related “solely” to the chemical attack, Tillerson told ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos. “Other than that, there is no change to our military posture” in Syria.
The secretary of state said the U.S. priority remains to defeat ISIS. As to the Syrian president, whose government the U.S. blames for the chemical attack, Tillerson told Stephanopoulos that the Trump administration hopes for a political process that will restore stability to Syria and allow its people “to decide the fate of Bashar al-Assad.”
But Trump's U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, seemed to strike a different tone.
“In no way do we see peace in that area with Assad as the head of the Syrian government," she told Chuck Todd on NBC’s "Meet the Press" on Sunday. “We've got to go and make sure that we actually see a leader that will protect his people. And clearly, Assad is not that person.”
Haley like Tillerson said the U.S. remains focused on eliminating ISIS from Syria. But while Tillerson told ABC the terror group is the United States’ first priority, Haley said there can be “multiple priorities," including ensuring the nation is led by someone who takes care of civilians.
National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster addressed the apparent difference in his appearance on "Fox News Sunday," saying, “Both Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Haley are right about this.”
“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, he added, "We are not saying that we are the ones who are going to affect that change.”
“There has to be a degree of simultaneous activity as well as sequencing of the defeat of ISIS first,” McMaster continued. He said a resolution to the Syrian conflict would involve ISIS’s defeat as well as “a significant change in the nature of the Assad regime.”
“This is the first time the United States has acted directly against the Assad regime," McMaster said of Thursday's airstrike.
President Trump sent a "strong message to Assad and to his sponsors who are enabling his campaign of mass murder against his own civilians,” the national security adviser said.