Interview with Secretary of State Tillerson on Situation in Syria

Secretary of State Tillerson

Interview with John Dickerson of CBS Face the Nation

Rex W. Tillerson
Secretary of State
West Palm Beach, Florida
April 9, 2017

QUESTION: We want to welcome Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to the broadcast. Mr. Secretary, thank you for being with us. As a start, what message was being sent to the Syrian leader with the U.S. military action?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, John, I think that the President was quite clear in his statement that he made to the American people that Syria’s continued violations of UN resolutions and previous agreements that Syria had entered into regarding the chemical weapons accord would no longer be tolerated. I think we have stood by and watched multiple weapon – chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime under the leadership of Bashar al-Assad, and this one in particular was the most horrific since the major chemical attack back in 2013.

And I think that is clearly the message is that the violation of international norms, the continuing ignoring of UN resolutions, and the continuing violation of agreements that they themselves entered into, will no longer be tolerated.

QUESTION: If Syria continues, though, on the other course it’s been on, which is to attack with conventional weapons, barrel bombs, and also block humanitarian aid, what is the message if they continue doing those things from the United States?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think those continued actions by Bashar al-Assad clearly call into any question of him expecting to have any legitimacy to continue as the leader of Syria. I think the issue of how Bashar al-Assad’s leadership is sustained or how he departs is something that we will be working with allies and others in the coalition. But I think with each of those actions, he really undermines his own legitimacy

QUESTION: Is it a priority of U.S. policy to get him out of power?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Our priority in Syria, John, really hasn’t changed. I think the President has been quite clear, first and foremost, we must defeat ISIS. And I would say that the military progress both in Syria and in Iraq has been remarkable since President Trump’s inauguration. We have continued to liberated areas. We are making tremendous progress in liberating Mosul in Iraq, working with coalition forces, working with allies, and we’re moving to position to liberate Raqqa and to continue to contain ISIS and the threat that ISIS really does present to the homeland and to other homelands of allies around the world.

QUESTION: So in terms of President Assad, you had said that there has been no change in policy as a result of this attack. So it is still true, then, that this fate is to be determined, as you said previously, by the Syrian people?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Yes, John, I think, obviously, the United States’ own founding principles are self-determination, and I think what the United States and our allies want to do is to enable the Syrian people to make that determination. And we’ve seen what violent regime change looks like in Libya and the kind of chaos that can be unleased, and indeed the kind of misery that it enacts on its own people.

I think what we’re hopeful is through this Syrian process, working with coalition members, working with the UN, and in particular working through the Geneva process, that we can navigate a political outcome in which the Syrian people, in fact, will determine Bashar al-Assad’s fate and his legitimacy. And I think the question of how his criminal actions and – are dealt with is something that will be part of that process.

QUESTION: The argument that people make for more intervention by the United States is that the Syrian people are in no position to make a determination about the president because he’s bombing a lot of them, millions of them have had to flee the country, and that he’s created a condition where there is no institution that can remove him from power; and while the U.S. pursues its interests, he continues to do all of the things that the administration has now said are so morally reprehensible.

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think, John, it’s important that we keep our priorities straight, and we believe that the first priority is the defeat of ISIS; that by defeating ISIS and removing their caliphate from their control, we have now eliminated, at least or minimized, a particular threat not just to the United States but to the whole stability of the region.

And once the ISIS threat has been reduced or eliminated, I think we can turn our attention directly to stabilizing the situation in Syria. We’re hopeful that we can prevent a continuation of the civil war and that we can bring the parties to the table to begin the process of political discussions.

Clearly, that requires the participation of the regime with the support of their allies. And we’re hopeful that Russia will choose to play a constructive role in supporting ceasefires through their own Astana talks but also ultimately through Geneva; and if we can achieve ceasefires and zones of stabilization in Syria, then I believe – we hope we will have the conditions to begin a useful political process.

QUESTION: This was the first crisis that started and was carried through on this President’s watch. Can you give us a window into that and what the President’s attention was focused on?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, the President, I would tell you, was very thoughtful in terms of the decision to take the strike. He requested immediately from the Defense Department and our military planners multiple options and requested of the State Department working with the National Security Council diplomatic options. We had multiple meetings to discuss those options. He asked a number of questions probing those so that they were fully developed, and then we had two meetings down – once we arrived in Mar-a-Lago, in which ultimately the President made the ultimate decision.

So I think, John, I would describe the President’s leadership in this issue was extraordinary in terms of the way he conducted those meetings. He clearly wanted everyone to express their personal views around the options. He invited everyone to express those openly and without reservation so that he could consider all of those options. And he did consider them, and then ultimately made the decision.

So I think it was a clear demonstration of his leadership, but also a clear demonstration of how well the team of people that he has put in place are able to work together to arrive at an answer that is clearly the right one.

QUESTION: Senator Marco Rubio made a charge this week. He accused you of, quote, “nodding to the idea that Assad was going to get to stay in some capacity,” and this was referring to your remarks about the Syrian people picking whether he could stay or go. And then – and Senator Rubio said it was no coincidence that then President Assad used chemical weapons. What’s your response to that?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: I think that’s a regrettable comment on the part of Senator Rubio.

QUESTION: And do you think there was nothing that the U.S. did in the statements either that you made or that the UN ambassador made, saying that it was not a priority to get him out, that that no effect on his thinking?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: This was – John, this was a continuation of a series of chemical weapons attack by Bashar al-Assad. This was not the first. As you well know, there were two similar attacks in March – March the 25th, March the 30th – in Hama, so this was yet another instance of Bashar al-Assad’s continued violation of the chemical weapons agreements.

QUESTION: Russia said that they don’t believe that this is the way that the United States sees it. Is that because Russia might have been involved in this chemical weapons attack?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think the Russians have played now for some time the role of providing cover for Bashar al-Assad’s behavior. The alternative explanation that the Russians put forth is simply not plausible. Not only is it not plausible; we know from our own information and open source information that their alternative explanation is simply not credible.

So there’s little question as to who is responsible for these attacks. It was Bashar al-Assad. And I think the Russians need to think more carefully about the commitment they made under the chemical weapons agreements to be the guarantor that these weapons would be seized, they would be removed, they would be destroyed. And since they are Bashar al-Assad’s ally, they would have the closest insight as to the compliance.

So regardless of whether Russia was complicit here or whether they were simply incompetent or whether they got outwitted by the Bashar al-Assad regime, you would have to ask the Russians that question. But clearly, they have failed in their commitment to the international community.

QUESTION: Given how strongly the President acted with respect to Syria using this chemical weapons, though, isn’t it a rather important point whether the Russians were actively engaged in the military chemical weapons use that the U.S. Government just launched a military strike over? Isn’t that a crucial question?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, to our knowledge, we do not – we do not have any information that suggests that Russia was part of the military attack undertaken using the chemical weapons.

QUESTION: The UN ambassador said, “How many children have to die before Russia cares?” Is that a message you will take to Moscow in your visit next week?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, again, it’s clearly the message is Russia gave certain assurances under the chemical weapons agreement in 2013 and in accordance with the UN Security Council resolutions that they would be the guarantor of the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. Russia has failed in that commitment, and the result of their failure has led to the killing of more children and innocents.

QUESTION: Do you worry about Russian retaliation for the U.S. military actions?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: I see no reason that there would be retaliation since the Russians were never targeted in this particular strike. It was a very deliberate, very proportional, and very targeted strike undertaken in response to the chemical weapons attack, and Russia was never part of the targeting.

QUESTION: And there’s a channel of communication between the U.S. and Russia – both flying over Syria – so they don’t bump into each other, if nothing else. Is that line of communication still open?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: As far as I know, the line of communication continues to be open and the battlefield commanders are able to communicate with one another. I am aware that there have been certain public statements made out of Moscow, so we’ll just have to see and may have to ask the military people.

QUESTION: You met with the president of China along with the President there in Florida. What message did the Chinese take from the U.S. action in Syria?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, the President, I think very thoughtfully and rightfully, did notify President Xi Jinping at the end of the dinner on the evening of the attack. And I think out of respect to President Xi, he wanted to explain to him the rationale for the U.S. action, why it was taken and why he felt it was necessary. My understanding – I was not standing nearby, but my understanding is that President Xi said, “Well, no one should kill children.” The Chinese have since issued their own statement on the attack itself.

QUESTION: The President also said about North Korea, “If China doesn’t ask – act” – pardon me – “in North Korea, then we will.” Did the Chinese get that message from this meeting over the weekend?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: I can tell you that both the president – the presidents had extensive discussions around the dangerous situation in North Korea. They had a very lengthy exchange on the subject yesterday morning. I think it was a very useful and productive exchange. President Xi clearly understands, and I think agrees, that the situation has intensified and has reached a certain level of threat that action has to be taken. And indeed, the Chinese even themselves have said that they do not believe the conditions are ripe today to engage in discussions with the government in Pyongyang.

And so what I think we’re hopeful is that we can work together with the Chinese to change the conditions in the minds of the DPRK leadership, and then at that point perhaps discussions may be useful. But I think there is a shared view and no disagreement as to how dangerous the situation has become, and I think even China is beginning to recognize that this presents a threat to even to China’s interests as well.

QUESTION: All right. Secretary Tillerson, we’ll have to leave it there. Thanks so much for being with us.

SECRETARY TILLERSON: It’s my pleasure, John.