Days after President Trump launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s airbase, the administration sent the big guns out to the Sunday morning talk shows to defend and explain the action. Trump’s people forcefully said “regime change is something that we think is going to happen” but were far less clear about when or how that might happen.
Collectively, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley drove home the point that the Syria strike was meant to send a message to Assad that the use of chemical weapons won’t be tolerated and serve as a warning notice to other players in the Syrian conflict.
Part of what required explanation was what the strike meant in light of Trump’s commitment on the campaign trail to leave the regime alone and focus solely on fighting ISIS in Syria. Since the missiles were launched, he’s been remarkably quiet about the spontaneous breach of his previously held doctrine.
Trump avoided the topic during public appearances on Friday or during his weekly address on Saturday, and on Twitter he’s only made two fairly subdued comments thanking the troops and explaining why he didn’t focus on hitting runways when targeting the airbase. As Peter Baker at the New York Times notes, there’s been a notable absence of taunting or chest beating or defensive tirades from our tweeter-in-chief.
But the administration’s statements on Sunday about the longer-term consequences of the Syria attack were ambiguous, and often varied in tone. Ultimately, their comments raised as many questions as they answered, reinforcing the emerging reality that the Trump administration’s approach to foreign affairs is heavily ad hoc and beholden to the president’s unpredictable whims.
Trump (probably) isn’t seeking regime change in Syria
Haley came across strongest in her commentary on the aftermath of the strike during her appearance on CNN’s State of the Union. She referred to getting Assad out as a “priority,” and said “we don’t see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there.” When Jake Tapper asked her if regime change was the position of the Trump administration, she offered an ambiguous response: “regime change is something that we think is going to happen, because all of the parties are going to see Assad is not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria.”
McMaster indicated on Fox News Sunday that the administration’s position is that Assad shouldn’t be in power — but it wasn’t the US that was going to make that happen. “We’re not saying that we are the ones who are going to effect this change,” he said.
Together their comments sounded more forceful and anti-Assad than the Trump administration has generally sounded in the past, but stopped short of saying the US would pursue Assad’s ouster itself. They want Russia, Assad’s biggest ally and chief protector, to try to push him out of power as part of a political solution to the Syrian civil war.
On ABC’s This Week, Tillerson sounded a bit more modest, and insisted that the administration’s overall goals in Syria remain the same. The primary focus is on fighting and defeating ISIS, the radical Islamist group that controls large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, he emphasized. The strike, he indicated, was specifically targeted at Assad’s use of chemical weapons last week, which killed at least 85 civilians, including dozens of children. “It was proportional, it was directly related to the chemical weapons attack," he said.
Tillerson said the Trump administration was not seeking to topple Assad through violent regime change because it could backfire. “Any time you go in and have a violent change at the top it’s very difficult to create the conditions for stability longer term,” he said.
He pointed to Libya’s instability after the US led a military intervention in the country in 2011 as a cautionary tale. “The situation in Libya continues to be very chaotic, and I would argue that the life of the Libyan people is not all that well off today, so I think we have to learn the lessons of the past,” he said.
Overall, he indicated that "there is no change to our military posture."
The strike is a message to Russia and Iran
Given the fact that Syria is the site of a host of proxy wars in the Middle East, the bombing of Assad was more than just an attack on him — it was also a blow to his allies. The administration embraced that geopolitical reality on the Sunday shows, targeting Russia and Iran with their criticism.
“The real failure here has been Russia’s failure to live up to its commitments under the chemical weapons agreements that were entered into in 2013, both by the Syrian government and by Russia as the guarantor to play the role in Syria of securing chemical weapons, destroying the chemical weapons and continuing to monitor that situation,” Tillerson said.
McMaster also signaled strong administration disapproval of Moscow’s possible knowledge of Syria’s chemical weapon holdings, which the US military is currently investigating. “This is a great opportunity for the Russian leadership to reevaluate what they’re doing,” he said.
While the administration officials all suggested that Moscow should take note of the US’s lack of hesitation to use force against its ally, none of them sounded as if the damage done to US-Russian relations was irreversible, and affirmed that the Kremlin was going to be a key part of any long-term political solution to the end of the Syrian civil war. Tillerson expressed hope in the possibility of “constructive talks” with Russia about that process.
Haley also said the Syria strike was a way of informing Iran, who backs Assad, that the US means business. “We've put Iran on notice because we need to get that influence out of there,” she said.
What is the Trump doctrine?
The Trump administration’s Sunday morning news blitz aimed for a few fairly straightforward messages: The Syria strike was a warning to Assad and his friends about violating international norms by using chemical weapons; Russia needs to watch Syria more closely and get Assad to step down; Iran has been put on notice.
But a number of huge questions remain. The most immediate ones swirl around a scenario in which Assad uses chemical weapons again in the future — potentially many times. What happens then? Does the US end up in a full-fledged military intervention against the regime? Does the war on ISIS get thrown on the backburner as the US enters yet another war in the Middle East? On the issue of future intervention in Syria, Haley said on Meet the Press that "We're gonna keep all of our thoughts and plans close to the chest."
The hints we’ve gotten so far have been hard to read. Tillerson’s statements made the strike sound targeted and didn’t preview the possibility of any more on the horizon. But McMaster made the Trump administration significantly more ready to go: “We’re prepared to do more. We were prepared to do more two days ago.”
The question of how to proceed on Syria in such a scenario is not only a strategic issue that the administration has yet to take a clear position on. It’s also a window into the evolution of the Trump doctrine — or the lack of one altogether.
Trump’s strike against Assad, and the real possibility that he could do so again the future, mark a stark departure from his oft-stated belief, both as a private citizen and a presidential candidate, that US foreign policy should be intervention-averse and not be conducted to enforce international norms or pursue humanitarian ends.
What’s unclear is if Trump’s worldview has changed in a permanent sense, or if this was a one-off deviation from his foreign policy vision. Or, perhaps, that he has no overarching vision at all, and his only philosophy for leading the most powerful nation in the world is shooting from the hip.