Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Sunday that the 59 cruiser missile strikes against a Syrian airbase were in retaliation for a chemical weapon attack and not a change in U.S. policy toward the country.
Tillerson, appearing on ABC and CBS talk shows, said the main objective is to defeat the Islamic State and let the Syrian people decide the fate of their president, Bashar al-Assad.
“This strike — and I think the president was very clear in his message to the American people that this strike was related solely to the most recent horrific use of chemical weapons against women, children, and, as the president said, even small babies,” Tillerson said on ABC’s This Week. “And so the strike was a message to Bashar al-Assad that your multiple violations of your agreements at the U.N., your agreements under the Chemical Weapons Charter back in 2013, that those would not go without a response in the future.”
Last week, Tillerson said that “the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”
So, has the policy changed?
“I think our strategy in Syria, as you know, our priority is first the defeat of ISIS, remove them from access to the caliphate because that’s where the threat to the homeland and to so many other homelands of our coalition partners is emanating from,” he said on ABC. “Once we can eliminate the battle against ISIS, conclude that and it is going quite well, then we hope to turn our attention to cease-fire agreements between the regime and opposition forces. And in that regard, we are hopeful that we can work with Russia and use their influence to achieve areas of stabilization throughout Syria and create the conditions for a political process through Geneva in which we can engage all of the parties on a way forward.
“And it is through that political process that we believe the Syrian people will lawfully be able to decide the fate of Bashar al-Assad.”
On CBS’s Face the Nation, he said if the Islamic State is removed, they’ve “eliminated at least or minimized a particular threat not just to the United States, but to the whole stability in the region.”
On Friday, Russia criticized the airstrikes as “an irresponsible approach that aggravates problems the world is facing.”
“Well, I guess I’m not too surprised that Russia might make that statement,” Tillerson said on ABC. “I will tell you, I’m disappointed, because I think the real failure here has been Russia’s failure to live up to its commitments under the chemical weapons agreements that were entered into in 2013, both by the Syrian government and by Russia, as the guarantor, to play the role in Syria of securing chemical weapons, destroying the chemical weapons and continuing to monitor that situation.”
Tillerson will travel to Moscow this week to meet with his Russian counterparts and plans to ask them about ensuring Syria has no chemical weapons.
Tillerson also said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s comments about the timing of past comments by the secretary of State and a chemical weapons attack in Syria were “regrettable.”
Rubio, a Republican, had said last week it wasn’t a coincidence Tillerson suggested Assad could remain in power and then there were attacks using chemical weapons.
“In this case now, we have very limited options, and look, it’s concerning that the secretary of State … said that the future’s up to the people in Syria on what happens with Assad,” Rubio said on the radio show AM Tampa Bay.
“In essence, [Tillerson was] almost nodding to the idea that Assad was gonna get to stay in some capacity. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a few days later we see this.”
On Sunday, Rubio said on ABC he supported the airstrike and “I don’t think you use the U.S. military simply to send a message. This strike was limited, but it had a clear strategic objective, which was the destruction or degrading of a key airbase installation that is used in these chemical attacks.”
But he wonders about an long-term strategy.
“I’m a bit concerned about the outlines of the strategy, as I understand it,” Rubio said. “I think it’s based on assumptions that quite frankly are not the right ones. And I hope they’ll reconsider this idea that we’re going to get rid of ISIS and then we’ll hopeful use Assad and others to come up with a solution, it’s not going to work.”
“As long as Assad is there, you’re going to have a radical jihadist Sunni element, even if you destroy ISIS it’ll be al-Nusra and that new coalition. These people who have been killed and gassed and human rights violations against them will never accept Assad as their rightful ruler, and they will join or become radicalized in order the fight him.”
Rubio said noted Tillerson’s comments are different from Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who said Assad should be removed.
On Sunday, Haley said on NBC’s Meet the Press: “In no way do we look at peace happening in that area with Iranian influence. In no way do we see peace in that area with Russia covering up for Assad. In no way do we see peace in that area with Assad as the head of the Syrian government.”
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat member of the House Intelligence Committee, on Sunday said Trump should have received congressional approval for the airstrikes.
“I don’t think, frankly, Obama should have put troops back in Iraq or in Syria without congressional approval,” he said on ABC. “I don’t think this president should have taken this strike without congressional approval.”
And Schiff said the airstrikes are an example why Trump should have “responsible, respectful relationship with the intelligence community.”
“I hope this underscored for the president why the destructive relationship he’s had had to come to an end,” Schiff said.
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