Tillerson: ‘Our Priority in Syria Really Hasn’t Changed’; Defeat ISIS, Then Deal With Assad

By Susan Jones | April 10, 2017 | 5:17 AM EDT

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appears on CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday, April 9, 2017. (Screen grab from CBS)

(CNSNews.com) – “Our priority in Syria, John, really hasn't changed,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told CBS’s “Face the Nation” with John Dickerson on Sunday.

“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 liberate areas.

‘We are making tremendous progress in liberating Mosul in Iraq, working with coalition forces, working with allies. And we are moving to -- 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.”

Tillerson said once the threat posed by ISIS is “reduced or eliminated,” then the U.S. can turn its attention to “stabilizing the situation in Syria.”

“We are 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,” he said.

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

Tillerson said the U.S. wants to enable the Syrian people to determine their own future.

“And we have seen what violent regime change looks like in Libya and the kind of chaos that can be unleashed and indeed the kind of misery that it enacts on its own people.

“I think what we are hopeful is, through this Syrian process, working with coalition members, working with the U.N., 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.”

But Tillerson also said the Assad’s continuing attacks on his own people undermine his 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 (chemical and conventional attacks) he really undermines his own legitimacy.”

Asked if Russia might have been involved in the chemical attack on Syrian civilians, Tillerson said although the Russians have provided “cover” for Assad, Assad is the one who is responsible for the attack.

“We do not have any information that suggests that Russia was a part of the military attack undertaken using the chemical weapons,” Tillerson said.

But he said 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 their 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.”

Tillerson said he sees no reason why Russia would retaliate for the U.S. attack on a Syrian air base, “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 a part of the targeting.”

Tillerson also said President Trump was “very thoughtful” as he mulled the U.S. response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people.

“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,” Tillerson said.

 “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.”

Tillerson said Trump asked his advisers to express their opinions, “openly, without reservation.”

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