Updated on April 11 at 4:05 p.m.
As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson landed in Moscow Tuesday, a fire blazed on the margins of Vnukovo Airport. This provided at least a couple useful metaphors, depending on one’s view of the situation. Russian officials said the fire was at a garbage dump, meaning it was a literal manifestation of that most versatile of epithets, the dumpster fire, which could be applied to the state of Russo-American relations at the moment.
For a more value-neutral analogy, the fire was a smoke screen, obscuring what exactly U.S. policy toward Syria is. It’s hard to tell not only what the policy is but what the reasons for it are, a problem exacerbated, or rather caused, by the fact the administration does not speak with one voice. President Trump himself has been uncharacteristically quiet about why and how he decided to order airstrikes against a target in Syria, and for what they indicate about U.S. policy toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad going forward. Is it a one-off because of a chemical-weapons attack, or the start of a broader offensive against Assad? Has Trump established a new red line that, if crossed, will trigger American action? In the absence of clear articulations from the Oval Office, here are some of the voices driving Syria policy.
Typically the secretary of state might be a leading voice on a pressing diplomatic matter, but Tillerson has been strangely sidelined throughout his short tenure in Foggy Bottom, and he has hardly offered more clarity or reassurance on Syria. Tillerson’s trip to Russia underscores his strange position: Although he has known Vladimir Putin for years, he is being shut out of a meeting with the president.
Tillerson surprised some observers when, hours before his flight to Moscow, he said in Lucca, Italy, “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.” Tillerson also said Russia had to choose between working with the West or with Assad, “which we believe is not going to serve Russia’s interests longer term.” By promising to go after those commit “any and all” crimes, he seemed to be suggesting an aggressively interventionist stance—a maximalist vision of America as the world’s policeman.
This is striking not only because it is far more aggressive than what other Trump officials have said, but because it is seemingly at odds with Tillerson’s own comments. On Sunday, he said on ABC’s This Week that the message of strikes was that “if you violate international norms, if you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken.” Yet he also said the U.S. still believes “it is through that political process that we believe the Syrian people will lawfully be able to decide the fate of Bashar al-Assad.” Tillerson said “there is no change to our military posture” except asking Assad to cease the use of chemical weapons. So is Tillerson a super-interventionist, or taking a hands-off approach? He seems unsure.
The U.S. ambassador to the UN has staked out a position that seems opposite to Tillerson, who is ostensibly her boss. “There is no political solution that any of us can see with Assad at the lead,” she told CNN on Sunday. On Wednesday, the day before the U.S. missile launch, Haley spoke forcefully about the chemical-weapons attack in Idlib, and she was the first administration official to say publicly that the U.S. might launch unilateral strikes in response. She also tangled with Russia in the UN Security Council. Haley might or might not be the architect of U.S. policy, but her statements are emerging as the most reliable indicator of where American action is headed. She’s pushing Tillerson in her direction, too, as his rhetoric toward Russia becomes more aggressive.
Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner
Neither Trump’s daughter nor her husband has any foreign-policy experience, nor does either have a job specifically related to diplomacy, but they do have the president’s ear. Eric Trump, Ivanka’s brother, credited Ivanka Trump’s influence for the airstrikes during an interview with The Telegraph, saying the vision of suffering children in the wake of the chemical-weapons attack was operative. “Ivanka is a mother of three kids and she has influence. I’m sure she said: ‘Listen, this is horrible stuff,’” he said. “My father will act in times like that.” New York’s Gabriel Sherman reported that Kushner, who just returned from a widely mocked trip to Iraq, was a major advocate for military force.
The White House press secretary is not supposed to make policy from the lectern, but Spicer seems to have inadvertently done so on Monday. “If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president,” Spicer said. That statement sounded close to Tillerson’s maximalism, but it stood at odds with Trump’s views before he became president. The White House has argued, in essence, that Trump was right to counsel caution years ago, but also right to act now because of the horrific Idlib attack. But Spicer’s phrasing makes clear that this is a distinction without a difference, since Assad was gassing children and barrel-bombing innocent people years ago.
Later Monday, the White House reversed Spicer’s comment. “Nothing has changed in our posture,” a statement said, according to The New York Times. “The president retains the option to act in Syria against the Assad regime whenever it is in the national interest, as was determined following that government’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.”
Trump’s national security adviser tried to split the difference between Haley and Tillerson during an appearance on Fox News Sunday, arguing that on the one hand only a political solution can end the Syrian civil war but that on the other, no political solution can involve Assad. “I think 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,” he said.
McMaster was careful not to commit himself or the administration to any future course of action, saying that while the goal of attacks was to deter chemical-weapons use, future decisions will be made in the future. “The president will make whatever decision he thinks is in the best interest of the American people, and it will be our job to provide him with options based on how we see this conflict evolve in this period of time before us, after the strike,” McMaster said.
During remarks Thursday night, McMaster told reporters, “The president was immediately notified upon news of the chemical attack.” Trump himself told a different story on Wednesday. The Times’ Maggie Haberman asked him, “Where were you when you found out about it?” He replied, “I was here. I saw it on television.” Given his viewing habits, that probably means Fox News. CNN’s Jim Acosta also reported that Trump was deeply affected by the images he saw in press reports.
The secretary of defense has kept a comparatively low profile during the latest flap. He has previously said that without Iranian patronage, Assad would have been forced out of office long ago. Mattis briefed Trump on military options ahead of U.S. strikes. On Tuesday, Mattis said, “Our military policy in Syria has not changed. Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS.” That followed a statement Monday, the Pentagon chief and former Marine general stayed clear of indications about regime change, portraying American strikes a deterrent to further gassing. “The president directed this action to deter future use of chemical weapons and to show the United States will not passively stand by while Assad murders innocent people with chemical weapons,” Mattis said. “The Syrian government would be ill-advised ever again to use chemical weapons.”
Mattis’s vague threat is a fitting encapsulation of the Trump administration’s stance on Syria at the moment. The president has shown a willingness to deploy the military, but he has not made clear when he will or won’t do it, and he has not laid out clearly what his goals are. In the absence of leadership from the top, a range of advisers are offering their own ideas.