Four days after President Donald Trump ordered a missile strike on the Syrian air base that reportedly launched a chemical attack on civilians, it remains unclear if the White House is committed to toppling President Bashar al-Assad or is seeking an alternate end game.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), speaking to LifeZette and other reporters just before the bombing began , said he thought Trump was on the right path by condemning the chemical attack at a joint press conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah II on Wednesday. At the time Rubio was speaking, it was not known to the world that Trump had made the decision to attack the air base in Homs province, where it is believed the planes that dropped chemical weapons, near the town of Khan Shaykhun in a rebel-held area in northwest Syria, originated. But Trump’s words alone impressed the Florida senator.
“I think we’ll look back at yesterday as one of the moments where his presidency evolved in what I believe is a stronger direction,” said Rubio, speaking to reporters on his way back to his office on Thursday.
Rubio told reporters in the Capitol that he wanted more than just symbolic action. So far, some could say that is all that has been accomplished. Rubio said at a minimum, he wants Assad’s ability to launch attacks on civilians “degraded.” Rubio also said he wants an international coalition to strip Assad of such abilities.
And while the Tomahawk missiles employed by the U.S. Navy likely caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to the Syrian military, Assad remains in power. Some leaders clearly desire regime change in Syria.
And on Sunday, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told CNN that the White House has “multiple priorities.”
“Getting Assad out is not the only priority,” Haley told Jake Tapper of CNN. “So what we’re trying to do is obviously defeat ISIS. 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, there are no easy answers, and a political solution is going to have to happen.”
But it is what she said next that put her in conflict with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
“If you look at his actions, if you look at the situation, it’s going to be hard to see a government that’s peaceful and stable with Assad,” Haley said. “Regime change is something that we think is going to happen because all of the parties are going to see that Assad is not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria.”
Regime change is also opposed by Russia, a close ally of Syria. The Russian embassy in the United Kingdom tweeted out an ominous question about “real war” breaking out in Syria. The embassy also said Russia supports the leadership in Damascus to prevent ISIS from taking control of Syria.
A long-term war with the Syrian government, ending in regime change, is not entirely welcome in Congress, even if an international coalition takes up the fight. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told reporters on Thursday that the bombing by the United States was unconstitutional because the United States was not attacked. Paul wants an official declaration of war before action is taken.
Complicating the matters for White House policy is that Syrian Christians prefer the protection of Assad against jihadists, said Paul.
Paul told LifeZette he is horrified by the images he sees after Assad attacks civilians, but he is not sure U.S. attacks are the answer. And Paul said the United States may not like a new regime in Syria.