Key players in Trump's Syria policy

President Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian airfield Thursday, the United States’ first attack against the regime of Bashar Assad.

The move was a response to a chemical attack that left dozens of civilians dead, including children, and the administration said it intended to deter Assad from using chemical weapons in the future.

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It also marked the biggest military decision of Trump’s young presidency.

Here are the key players who guided Trump’s decision and who will be a major part of his policy toward Syria.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

Tillerson has largely avoided the spotlight since assuming his post, and Thursday’s strike marked his first major moment as the nation’s top diplomat. 

He was at the table in the final meeting with Trump before the strike was carried out, and his remarks toward Syria have seen a major shift since the gas attack made international headlines. 

While on a recent trip to Turkey, Tillerson said that the “longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”

But the afternoon before the airstrike was carried out, Tillerson said: "Assad’s role in the future is uncertain, clearly, and with the acts that he has taken, it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.” 

Shortly after Trump gave the go-ahead to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles at Shayrat Airfield, Tillerson said it “clearly indicates the president is willing to take decisive action when called for.”

Tillerson also took a tough tone against Russia, accusing Moscow of enabling Assad and allowing him to breach a 2013 deal between Russia and the Obama administration to avoid military strikes. Russia pledged to ensure Assad eliminated his chemical weapons stockpile. 

“Clearly Russia has failed in its responsibility to deliver on that commitment from 2013,” Tillerson said. “Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement.”

Next week Tillerson, who developed a relationship with Vladimir Putin through his career at ExxonMobil, will visit Moscow. The U.S. airstrike is sure to heighten tensions of his trip.

But Tillerson downplayed the possibility Trump will further escalate the conflict in an attempt to force Assad from power, and said Thursday that the overall U.S. policy on military action in Syria has not changed.  

National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster

Known as the scholar general, McMaster is well-versed in world conflicts both past and present and can offer a unique viewpoint in how Syria and Russia may react, as well as what the U.S. should do moving forward.

His appointment, replacing the ousted Michael Flynn, was a relief to many in the defense world, and he has quickly established his influence within the administration. 

McMaster, who joined Trump, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Tillerson at Mar-a-Lago in the final meeting before the strike, said Trump and his aides discussed three options for a response to Syria.

He said the strike likely won't eliminate the Assad government's capacity to carry out chemical attacks.

"Obviously the regime will maintain a certain capacity to commit mass murder with chemical weapons we think beyond this particular air field,” McMaster said.

But he said the U.S. airstrike should communicate a "big shift in Assad’s calculus." 

Asked whether the strike is aimed at sending a message or damaging Assad's military capacity, McMaster responded: "This is the first time that the United States has taken direct military action against that regime or the regime of his father. So I think it was critical is with the president’s decision in response to this mass murder attack but also in the context of all the previous attacks that have occurred – I think is over 50 – chemical attacks previously, post 2013 when the UN resolution went into effect."

"So I think it was both," he said. "It was aimed at the capacity to commit mass murder with chemical weapons but it was not of a scope or a scale that it would go after all such related facilities.” 

Defense Secretary James Mattis 

Mattis also played a major, but quiet, role in Trump’s decision-making process.

As the former commander of U.S. Central Command, Mattis has deep insight into the region and the possible outcomes from the strike. He was the one to present Trump with CENTCOM plans for a “saturation strike” on the airfield.

Mattis also knows how to tread carefully with Russia and understands possible risks from his time with the Obama administration. The possibility of Russian casualties was reportedly a “sticking point” for him, as was the worry that U.S. service members in the area could become targets in retaliation.

The Pentagon released the details of the strike Thursday night and stressed that precautions had been taken to minimize risk to Russian and Syrian personnel and civilians.

Mattis did not appear alongside McMaster and Tillerson in a press conference following the strike and has not released any statements since the attack.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley 

Haley has emerged as a fierce defender of the U.S. missile strike in reaction to the Syrian chemical attack, and on Friday warned that the U.S. is prepared to take further military action against Syria. 

"The United States took a very measured step last night," Haley said at a meeting of the U.N. Security Council, hours after the airfield strike. "We are prepared to do more, but we hope that will not be necessary."

Haley - the most outspoken White House representative on the issue since the chemical weapons attack - has proven she will go to bat for the administration on the airfield strike and called it “fully justified.”

Haley joins Tillerson in quickly shifting her stance on Assad. Last week she said the U.S. priority “is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out," Haley told wire reporters Thursday, according to AFP.

She now asserts that stopping the use of chemical weapons was in the “vital national security interests” of the United States.

Haley, who held up photos of suffering children at a UN meeting, also on Friday blasted Russia for assisting Assad’s regime. 

“Assad did this because he thought he could get away with it,” she said. “He thought he could get away with it because he thought Russia had his back. That changed last night.”