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Press Briefing by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster
10:18 P.M. EDT
MR. SPICER: Tonight, Secretary Tillerson and NSA Director, Lieutenant General McMaster, will both give comments regarding the President's order tonight, and then afterwards we'll take a few questions and then let you get to some sleep.
With that, Secretary Tillerson.
President Donald Trump receives a briefing on a military strike on Syria from his National Security team, including a video teleconference with Secretary of Defense, Gen. James Mattis, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, on Thursday April 6, 2017, in a secured location at Mar-a-Lago in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Good evening, all. I think what we want to try to do is give you a little bit of background on how we got to the statements by the President and the actions that were taken tonight.
As you're well aware, Bashar al-Assad has carried out chemical attacks this past week on civilians, including women and children, and carried out attacks earlier – last month, March 25th and 30th in Homs Province, as well. We have a very high level of confidence that the attacks were carried out by aircraft under the direction of Bashar al-Assad's regime. And we also have very high confidence that the attacks involved the use of sarin nerve gas. At least the past three attacks were fairly high – we have high confidence on that.
I think it's also clear that previous agreements that had been entered into pursuant to U.N. Security Council Resolution 2118, as well as Annex A agreements that the Syrian government themselves accepted back in 2013, whereby they would surrender their chemical weapons under the supervision of the Russian government. Now, the U.S. and the Russian government entered into agreements whereby Russia would locate these weapons, they would secure the weapons, they would destroy the weapons, and that they would act as the guarantor that these weapons would no longer be present in Syria.
Clearly, Russia has failed in its responsibility to deliver on that commitment from 2013. So either Russia has been complicit, or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement.
I think the other thing that's important to recognize – that as Assad has continued to use chemical weapons in these attacks with no response – no response from the international community – that he, in effect, is normalizing the use of chemical weapons, which then may be adopted by others. So it's important that some action be taken on behalf of the international community to make clear that these chemical weapons continue to be a violation of international norms.
I think it's also important to recognize, as I think everyone does, the chaotic circumstances that exist on the ground in Syria, with the presence of a battle underway to defeat ISIS, the presence of al Qaeda elements inside of Syria, and a civil war that is underway. So, clearly, one of the existential threats we see on the ground in Syria is if there are weapons of this nature available in Syria, the ability to secure those weapons and not have them fall into the hands of those who would bring those weapons to our shores to harm American citizens.
So there are a number of elements that, in our view, called for this action and which we feel was appropriate. We feel the strike itself was proportional because it was targeted at the facility that delivered this most recent chemical weapons attack. And in carrying this out, we coordinated very carefully with our international partners in terms of communicating with them around the world. And I will tell you that the response from our allies in Europe, as well as the region in the Middle East, has been overwhelmingly supportive of the action we've taken.
So I'll leave it there. And let me turn it to NSA Director McMaster.
GENERAL McMASTER: I really have very little to add except to say that it was important during the President's deliberations and its deliberations with his leadership that we weighed, of course, the risk associated with any military action, and we weighed that against the risk of inaction, which Secretary Tillerson has already really summarized, which is the risk of this continued egregious, inhumane attacks on innocent civilians with chemical weapons.
And so, really, nothing else to add to the Secretary's summary. And we're happy to take any questions that you have.
Q Could you go through just the timeline of how the President's thinking changed? And when did you present him with options and so forth?
GENERAL McMASTER: Okay. So the President was immediately notified upon news of the chemical attack, and he was very interested in understanding better the circumstances of the attack and who was responsible. Our intelligence community, in cooperation with our friends and partners and allies around the world, collaborated to determine with a very high degree of confidence precisely where the location originated, and then, of course, the sort of chemicals that were used in the attack.
That confidence level has just continued to grow in the hours and days since the attack, associated with additional evidence that's available, especially – so sad – sadly, from the victims that are being treated and the confirmation of the type of agent that was used, which was a nerve agent.
So that was – the initial interactions with the President were about the attack and responding to his questions about the nature of the attack, the scope of the attack, and who was responsible in particular.
And then we convened a meeting of the National Security Council principals – a small group; it wasn't the full – it was almost the full National Security Council – to deliberate on options. There were three options; you can imagine which those were. There were three options that we discussed with the President, and the President asked us to focus on two options in particular, to mature those options. And then he had a series of questions for us that we endeavored to answer.
We were able to answer those questions and come back to him in a decision – briefing today, again, with virtually all of the principals on the National Security Council here in Florida and then by video-telephone conference back in Washington. And after a meeting of considerable length and a far-reaching discussion, the President decided to act. And that's the general sequence of events. So rather two large and formal meetings, but really a whole series of discussions since the time of the attack.
Secretary, do you have anything to add to that?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: No, I think just as I said, as I think H.R. has said, this was a very deliberative process. There was a thorough examination of a wide range of options. And I think the President made the correct choice and made the correct decision, first to be decisive in acting – acting against this heinous act on the part of Bashar al-Assad – but acting in a way that was clearly directed at the source of this particular attack, to send that strong message.
Other things were considered. Those were rejected for any number of reasons. And in my view, the President made the exact, correct decision.
Q Mr. Secretary –
Q Mr. Secretary, can you talk a little bit about your discussions in the last hour? Secretary, did you speak to the President –
SECRETARY TILLERSON: I'll let Sean referee here.
MR. SPICER: (Laughter.) I'm good at it. Hallie.
Q Did you or did the President speak with President Putin prior to the attack? Can you talk about the discussions that you had with Moscow and what the expectation is from them?
And then, General McMaster, I have a question for you as well, please.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: There were no discussions or prior contacts, nor have there been any since the attack, with Moscow.
Q And can you tell us about your expectations for what you think you will hear from President Putin or Foreign Minister Lavrov?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: I'll let them speak for themselves.
Q General, McMaster, I'd like to ask you – the President – you talked a little bit in response to Steve's question about the President's evolution of his thinking. Just a couple of years ago his encouragement was to stay out of Syria. You talked about the images that sort of moved him into this direction – as he put it tonight, "beautiful babies cruelly murdered." Has his thinking then changed on allowing Syrian refugees into the United States, to your knowledge?
GENERAL McMASTER: No, that wasn't discussed as any part of the deliberations.
Q And on the target, anything else on specifically what you believe was destroyed in the strike?
GENERAL McMASTER: I'll defer to the Pentagon on that. But there were a number of targets that were associated with the ability of that airfield to operate and to continue mass-murder attacks against the Syrian civilians. And the one thing that I will tell you, though, there was an effort to minimize risk to third-country nationals at that airport – I think you read Russians from that – and we took great pains to try to avoid that. Of course, in any kind of military operation, there are no guarantees. And then there were also measures put in place to avoid hitting what we believe is a storage of sarin gas there so that that would not be ignited and cause a hazard to civilians or anyone else.
MR. SPICER: Margaret.
Q Can I ask H.R. – sorry – both the Secretary and H.R. McMaster – what is the overriding message here? Is it that – this is not clearly a declaration of war, but is it that for President Trump and this administration the credible threat of military force is back on the table? Was this articulated or explained in any way to President Xi prior to the President's remarks? And do you see this as in any way sending a message more broadly on your policy towards North Korea that the President is willing to take decisive action? If both of you would weigh in.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think as you just stated, this clearly indicates the President is willing to take decisive action when called for. And I think in this particular case, the use of prohibited chemical weapons, which violates a number of international norms and violates existing agreements, called for this type of a response, which is a kinetic military response.
I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or our posture relative to our military activities in Syria today. There's been no change in that status. But I think it does demonstrate that President Trump is willing to act when governments and actors cross the line, and cross the line on violating commitments they have made and cross the line in the most heinous of ways. I think it is clear that President Trump has made that statement to the world tonight.
Q Mr. Secretary, can I –
MR. SPICER: Hold on, hold on –
GENERAL McMASTER: I really have no further comment on that question. I think the Secretary covered it comprehensively.
Q Did you tell China in advance?
MR. SPICER: Hold on one second.
Q Mr. Secretary, if I could ask you to clarify Russia again – you said no contacts were made with Russia before the strikes today.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: No contacts were made with Moscow, with President Putin. There are military de-confliction agreements in place with the Russian military, and our military did operate under and in accordance with those de-confliction agreements in coordinating this particular attack.
Q On the ground in Syria?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: In Syria.
Q Can you explain, Mr. Secretary, that process? How was Russia notified?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Let me let H.R. –
GENERAL McMASTER: There are normal channels open for de-confliction. And I'll just defer that to the Pentagon just for accuracy. But the Pentagon, I know, is going to be talking to the press here soon, and I think it would be better if they give you a more precise answer if you're looking for details.
Q And, Mr. Secretary, if I could, obviously the diplomatic considerations here are of a magnitude that didn't exist a number of years ago. When you went into this, unlike President Obama, who was dealing simply with Bashar al-Assad, you're dealing with Russia, you're dealing with the Kurds, you're dealing with Turkey. Can you give us a little bit of the diplomatic calculation in undertaking this attack?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, my expectation is that all of those parties, with the exception of Bashar al-Assad and perhaps Russia, I think are going to applaud this particular action or effort.
Overall, the situation in Syria is one where our approach today and our policy today is, first, to defeat ISIS. By defeating ISIS we remove one of the disruptive elements in Syria that exists today. That begins to clarify for us opposition forces and regime forces. In working with the coalition – as you know, there is a large coalition of international players and allies who are involved in the future resolution in Syria.
So it's to defeat ISIS; it's to begin to stabilize areas of Syria, stabilize areas in the south of Syria, stabilize areas around Raqqa through ceasefire agreements between the Syrian regime forces and opposition forces. Stabilize those areas; begin to restore some normalcy to them. Restore them to local governance – and there are local leaders who are ready to return, some who have left as refugees – they're ready to return to govern these areas. Use local forces that will be part of the liberation effort to develop the local security forces – law enforcement, police force. And then use other forces to create outer perimeters of security so that areas like Raqqa, areas in the south can begin to provide a secure environment so refugees can begin to go home and begin the rebuilding process.
In the midst of that, through the Geneva Process, we will start a political process to resolve Syria's future in terms of its governance structure, and that ultimately, in our view, will lead to a resolution of Bashar al-Assad's departure.
MR. SPICER: Jonathan.
Q Mr. Secretary and General McMaster, does this strike significantly change Assad's military capability to carry out an attack like this? Or was it really about sending a message that this kind of attack is not acceptable?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I'll answer the last part of that. This was clearly a very decisive action taken on the part of President Trump, who I think you heard yesterday said this particular heinous attack changed his view of how horrible these types of use of these weapons are. That clearly changed President Trump's view that something has to be done in response.
I'll let H.R. McMaster respond to the second question of the military – whether it's changed our military posture.
GENERAL McMASTER: Obviously, the regime will maintain the certain capacity to commit mass murder with chemical weapons we think beyond this particular airfield. But it was aimed at this particular airfield for a reason, because we could trace this murderous attack back to that facility. And this was not a small strike. It was not a small strike. And I think what it does communicate is a big shift, right, a big shift in Assad's calculus – it should be, anyway – because 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 what is critical is 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 over 50 – I think it's over 50 chemical attacks previously, post-2013, when the U.N. resolution went into effect. And so I think that it's both. 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.
Q Were military personnel with any other nations, any of our allies, take part in this? Or was this 100 percent a U.S. operation?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: This was entirely a U.S. operation.
MR. SPICER: Jen.
Q Can you talk a little bit about whether there might have been just an emotional reaction to this from President Trump? Assad cannot gas Americans, so do you think some emotional response to the sight and images of what happened in Syria played into this? And secondly, can you talk about the reaction from President Xi?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: No, I don't think it was – I do not view it as an emotional reaction at all. I think as President Trump evaluated this first attack, these attacks that occurred on his watch, and reflected upon the prior responses, or lack of responses, he came to the conclusion that we could not, yet again, turn away and turn an eye – turn a blind eye to what's happened.
The use of these weapons, as I indicated earlier, one of the concerns we have is the more we fail to respond to use of these weapons, the more we begin to normalize their use. And when we begin to normalize their use, we are opening up wider-spread use by others who would use such weapons.
And I don't think we should in any way diminish the risk of the situation in Syria where there is a lot of chaos on the ground. There are elements on the ground in Syria, elements that are plotting to reach our shore, and these type of weapons falling into their hands and being brought to our shore is a direct threat on the American people.
Q Sorry, I wanted to ask you to clarify something, Secretary Tillerson, first, and then I also have a military question. You were saying that there was no coordination with Moscow for this, but then you said that you followed the rules of de-confliction. So that kind of suggests that you did talk to Russia in some capacity. Can you just clarify that?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think Director McMaster answered it. And again, I would direct you to the Pentagon to give you the precise procedures that are followed. But these are battlefield agreements, because we're operating in Syria, the Russians are operating in Syria. As we have begun the march to defeat ISIS, many of our forces are becoming more approximate to one another, and so we have a de-confliction agreement in place with the Russian military.
And so there are command contacts that exist 24/7 for any type of operation that could bring us into conflict. That's the level of contact that we're talking about.
Q So is it more accurate to say that you didn't seek approval from Moscow or anything like that for them to kind of give you the green light, but you followed protocol in terms of the military –
SECRETARY TILLERSON: We sought no approval from Moscow or at any other level within the Russian infrastructure. This was strictly following the rules that we have put in place, an agreement with the Russian military to de-conflict. Because our target in this attack was not Russia, it was not the Russians, it was not their forces, nor any Russian individuals. Our target was this airfield and the Syrian regime.
GENERAL McMASTER: I would just add one thing. The purpose was not to receive permission, the purpose was to reduce the chances of Russian casualties and to follow the procedures, as you mentioned. But we wanted to take every possible measure we could to reduce the chance of Russian casualties.
MR. SPICER: Thank you guys very much. Appreciate it. We're going to have a great night.
10:39 P.M. EDT
[Source: White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Tideline Ocean Resort & Spa, Palm Beach, Floridad, 06Apr17]
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