Trump administration at odds over how to handle Syrian president

W.H. split on al-Assad's future

A CBS News poll shows most Americans think President Trump was right to attack a Syrian air base, but they do not want any further military action there. Fifty-seven percent in our poll approve of the air strike in response to a chemical weapons attack on civilians, while 36 percent disapprove. But only 18 percent would accept American ground troops in Syria. Another 30 percent would go along with further air strikes, and 26 percent want to see peace talks in Syria without military action.

The airstrikes gave Mr. Trump a job approval rating boost, up by three points. It’s now at 43 percent. But there’s still concern, especially among Democrats and Independents, about the president’s ability to handle the civil war in Syria going forward and the continued failure of the administration to present a unified front on the matter isn’t instilling confidence. The White House appears split on Mr. Trump’s doctrine in Syria, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley at odds over how to handle President Bashar al-Assad after last week’s cruise missile attacks on the air base that launched a sarin gas attack on civilians.

“What we’re trying to do is obviously defeat ISIS,” Haley said on CNN.

Haley and Tillerson agreed the fate of ISIS was more important than that of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.   

“The first priority is the defeat of ISIS,” Tillerson said on “Face the Nation.”

Tillerson on Syria priority: "First and foremost, we must defeat ISIS"

But on al-Assad’s future, the two top Trump diplomats differed. Tillerson suggested al-Assad’s future was in the hands of a country beleaguered by six years of civil war.

“We can navigate a political outcome in which the Syrian people, in fact, will determine Bashar al-Assad’s fate,” Tillerson said.

Meanwhile, Haley called for al-Assad’s ouster.

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

This led South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham to describe a new Trump approach.

“Regime change is now the policy of the Trump administration. That’s at least what I’ve heard,” Graham said on NBC News.

National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster said Syria’s civil war, with its many factions and feuding terrorist cells, rests at the heart of the policy dilemma.

“What’s required is some kind of a political solution to that very complex problem,” McMaster said on Fox News.

Dislodging al-Assad, some administration officials fear, could be just as bad or worse than the status quo. 

“It’s very difficult to understand how a political solution could result from the continuation of the Assad regime. We’re not saying that we are the ones who are going to affect that change,” McMaster said. 

An equally pressing issue: how to handle Syria’s top military ally, Russia.

“I hope that Russia is thinking carefully about its continued alliance with Bashar al-Assad, because every time one of these horrific attacks occurs, it draws Russia closer in to some level of responsibility,” Tillerson said on ABC News.

The Russian question is sure to come up this week during Tillerson’s trip to Moscow, where he will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The administration is also dealing with a shakeup in the national security council. K. T. McFarland, who was hired under the Mike Flynn period, is out as the deputy national security advisor. McFarland will now be nominated as the next ambassador to Singapore.