What Trump and administration officials have said about Syria

Administration officials have suggested a range of potential positions.

ByABC News
April 11, 2017, 5:10 AM

— -- After the United States launched airstrikes in Syria last week in the wake of a horrific chemical attack there, questions remained about the administration's strategy going forward, including what would spark Trump to act again and how would he respond.

The most prominent question is whether the administration believes Bashar al-Assad, who Trump holds responsible for the chemical attack that killed Syrian civilians, should remain Syria’s leader.

“I don’t think there’s – I can’t imagine a stable and peaceful Syria where Bashar Assad is in power. I think we all recognize that," White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday.

Spicer also introduced the possibility that barrel bombs, combined with chemical weapons, would be enough to get the president to act again in Syria.

The answer is if you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb in to innocent people I think you will see a response from this president,” Spicer said. “Make no mistake he will act.”

Past statements from Trump on the campaign trail and during the 2013 debate over military intervention in Syria made clear that Trump had previously opposed getting involved in the region.

So far, President Trump and his administration have been giving mixed signals on the broader U.S. strategy. Here’s what each official has said so far:

President Trump

President Trump ran on an “America first” foreign policy platform and consistently called for the United States to stay out of Syria in 2013.

The only reason President Obama wants to attack Syria is to save face over his very dumb RED LINE statement. Do NOT attack Syria,fix U.S.A.

Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 5, 2013

Trump opposed intervention in Syria during his campaign and the beginning of his presidency. His initial statement called last week's attacks “reprehensible” and “heinous," but ultimately laid some of the blame on the Obama administration.

But then he began to change his position, saying that Assad had crossed “many, many lines” and “my attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much” in a press conference last Wednesday.

"I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity. He’s there and I guess he’s running things, so something should happen,” Trump said speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on his way to his Florida retreat at Mar-a-Lago last Thursday.

And in a speech to the American people on the night of his missile strikes last week, President Trump said stopping Assad from using chemical weapons was “in the vital national security interest of the United States.”

“There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the chemical weapons convention and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council,” Trump said. “As a result the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

PHOTO: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson makes a statement about the visit of China's President Xi Jinping and about the situation in Syria, at Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Fla., April 6, 2017.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson makes a statement about the visit of China's President Xi Jinping and about the situation in Syria, at Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Fla., April 6, 2017.

America’s main priority in Syria, according to the secretary of state, is defeating ISIS.

“I think our strategy in Syria, as you know, our priority is first the defeat of ISIS, remove them from access to the Caliphate because that's where the threat to the homeland and to so many other homelands of our coalition partners is emanating from,” Tillerson said in an interview Sunday with “This Week.”

“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.”

Two days after the chemical attack, and after receiving criticism for his March 30 comments that Assad’s future “will be decided by the Syrian people,” Tillerson condemned the brutal dictator.

"Assad’s role in the future is uncertain clearly,” Tillerson said on April 6, 2016. “With the acts that he has taken, it would seem there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people."

But he stopped short of saying that removing Assad from power is the first thing on the to-do list.

“The process by which Assad would leave is something that I think would require international community effort,” Tillerson said. “Both to first defeat ISIS within Syria, to stabilize the Syrian country, to avoid further civil war, and then to work collectively with our partners around the world through a political process that would lead to Assad leaving.”

When asked if he would organize an international coalition to remove Assad, Tillerson said, “Those steps are underway.”

U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley

PHOTO: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley delivers remarks at the Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria at the United Nations Headquarters, April 7, 2017, in New York City.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley delivers remarks at the Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria at the United Nations Headquarters, April 7, 2017, in New York City.
Stephanie Keith/REUTERS

Haley said in an interview with CNN's “State of the Union” on Sunday that the U.S. has “multiple priorities” in Syria.

“Getting Assad out is not the only priority. And so what we're trying to do is obviously defeat ISIS,” Haley said. “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.”

Haley added, “There's not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime.”

She made similar remarks on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“In no way do we see peace in that area with Assad as the head of the Syrian government. 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 said Sunday.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster

PHOTO: Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster listens as President Donald Trump announces him as his next National Security Adviser, at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, Feb. 20, 2017.
Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster listens as President Donald Trump announces him as his next National Security Adviser, at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, Feb. 20, 2017.

Trump’s national security adviser in an interview with “Fox News Sunday” attempted to clear up disparities between Haley and Tillerson’s comments.

“Both Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Haley are right about this,” McMaster said, adding that “While people are really anxious to find inconsistencies in the statements, they are in fact very consistent in terms of what is the ultimate political objective in Syria.”

McMaster explained, “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.”

But McMaster went on to say that Haley’s comments should not be taken to mean Americans are the one “who are going to affect that change.”

“I understand that that's the ultimate political objective. But Secretary Tillerson said destroying ISIS must come first. You don't seem to be saying that,” Fox News’ Chris Wallace pointed out.

“No, that's exactly what we are saying,” McMaster said.

Wallace pushed again, “Is it two separate tracks at the same time or does ISIS have to happen first before we and the international community move to depose Assad?”

“Well, I think as you saw with the strike, that there has to be a degree of simultaneous activity as well as sequencing of the defeat of ISIS first,’ McMaster said.

Related Topics

Trump opposed intervention in Syria during his campaign and the beginning of his presidency. His initial statement called last week's attacks “reprehensible” and “heinous,\" but ultimately laid some of the blame on the Obama administration.

But then he began to change his position, saying that Assad had crossed “many, many lines” and “my attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much” in a press conference last Wednesday.

\"I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity. He’s there and I guess he’s running things, so something should happen,” Trump said speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on his way to his Florida retreat at Mar-a-Lago last Thursday.

And in a speech to the American people on the night of his missile strikes last week, President Trump said stopping Assad from using chemical weapons was “in the vital national security interest of the United States.”

“There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the chemical weapons convention and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council,” Trump said. “As a result the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

America’s main priority in Syria, according to the secretary of state, is defeating ISIS.

“I think our strategy in Syria, as you know, our priority is first the defeat of ISIS, remove them from access to the Caliphate because that's where the threat to the homeland and to so many other homelands of our coalition partners is emanating from,” Tillerson said in an interview Sunday with “This Week.”

“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.”

Two days after the chemical attack, and after receiving criticism for his March 30 comments that Assad’s future “will be decided by the Syrian people,” Tillerson condemned the brutal dictator.

\"Assad’s role in the future is uncertain clearly,” Tillerson said on April 6, 2016. “With the acts that he has taken, it would seem there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.\"

But he stopped short of saying that removing Assad from power is the first thing on the to-do list.

“The process by which Assad would leave is something that I think would require international community effort,” Tillerson said. “Both to first defeat ISIS within Syria, to stabilize the Syrian country, to avoid further civil war, and then to work collectively with our partners around the world through a political process that would lead to Assad leaving.”

When asked if he would organize an international coalition to remove Assad, Tillerson said, “Those steps are underway.”

U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley

Haley said in an interview with CNN's “State of the Union” on Sunday that the U.S. has “multiple priorities” in Syria.

“Getting Assad out is not the only priority. And so what we're trying to do is obviously defeat ISIS,” Haley said. “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.”

Haley added, “There's not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime.”

She made similar remarks on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“In no way do we see peace in that area with Assad as the head of the Syrian government. 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 said Sunday.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster

Trump’s national security adviser in an interview with “Fox News Sunday” attempted to clear up disparities between Haley and Tillerson’s comments.

“Both Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Haley are right about this,” McMaster said, adding that “While people are really anxious to find inconsistencies in the statements, they are in fact very consistent in terms of what is the ultimate political objective in Syria.”

McMaster explained, “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.”

But McMaster went on to say that Haley’s comments should not be taken to mean Americans are the one “who are going to affect that change.”

“I understand that that's the ultimate political objective. But Secretary Tillerson said destroying ISIS must come first. You don't seem to be saying that,” Fox News’ Chris Wallace pointed out.

“No, that's exactly what we are saying,” McMaster said.

Wallace pushed again, “Is it two separate tracks at the same time or does ISIS have to happen first before we and the international community move to depose Assad?”

“Well, I think as you saw with the strike, that there has to be a degree of simultaneous activity as well as sequencing of the defeat of ISIS first,’ McMaster said.

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