Tillerson Says U.S. to Press Russia Over Syrian Chemical Weapons

Updated on
  • Secretary of state meeting with Russian counterpart this week
  • Comments follow attack on Syria with debate on regime change

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he’ll use a meeting this week in Moscow to challenge Russia about chemical weapons in Syria, as the Trump administration plans its next moves following a missile strike in retaliation for the Assad government’s use of the banned munitions.

Russia “agreed to be the guarantor of the elimination of the chemical weapons, and why Russia has not been able to achieve that is unclear to me,” Tillerson said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” program.

Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley all appeared on Sunday talk shows to discuss President Donald Trump’s strategy toward Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s forces were blamed for using chemical weapons to kill dozens. The U.S. missile strike on April 7 on an airfield used in the attack embroiled the U.S. more deeply in Syria’s six-year civil war and heightened tension with Russia, an Assad ally.

Tillerson will attend for a two-day meeting of G7 foreign ministers in Lucca, Italy, that starts Monday, and continue from there to Moscow, where he said Syria’s weapons will be on the agenda in meetings scheduled with Sergey Lavrov, his Russian counterpart.

“We’ve already, I think, issued some very strong statements,” Tillerson said. “And yes, that will be part of the discussions.”

Support Problematic

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” called Russian support for Assad “part of the problem.”

Asked whether Russia was involved in the chemical weapon attack, McMaster said, “I think what we should do is ask Russia, ‘How could it be if you have advisers at that airfield, that you didn’t know?”’

Haley also questioned how Russia didn’t know about the weapons.

“Either they knew that there were chemical weapons and they knew there was going to be chemical weapon use, and they just hid it from the international community, or they are being played for fools by Assad,” she said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Moscow has said it doesn’t believe Assad’s forces carried out the April 4 attack and called for a “thorough and impartial” investigation.

‘Will Do More’

If Trump needs to do more in Syria “he will do more,’’ Haley said, adding that she doesn’t see a political solution in Syria with Assad remaining as president, and that other U.S. priorities there are defeating Islamic State and to “get the Iranian influence out.’’

Asked whether Trump would support tougher sanctions on Russia and Iran, Haley said, “I think it’s conversations that we’ll be having and have started to have going forward” and “I don’t think anything is off the table at this point.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said Russia “intentionally, in my view, left chemical weapons in the hand of Assad, their proxy.”

“So if I were President Trump, I would go after Russia through sanctions, not only for interfering in our elections, but aiding and abetting the use of chemical weapons by a war criminal, Assad,” Graham said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

Missiles Aside, What Are Trump’s Syria Options?: QuickTake Q&A

There appeared to be a range of opinions among the Trump administration officials about whether regime change in Syria is good U.S. policy.

Haley said regime change “is something that we think is going to happen” because “there is no political solution that any of us can see with Assad at the lead.” And McMaster said “it’s very difficult to understand how a political solution could result from the continuation of the Assad regime.”

But Tillerson said there’s been no change to the U.S. military stance in Syria beyond the missile strike, and he warned about the “chaotic” results of previous regime change in Libya. He said the Syrian people will decide Assad’s fate, and that defeating the Islamic State is the top U.S. priority.

“Once the ISIS threat has been reduced or eliminated, I think we can turn our attention directly to stabilizing the situation in Syria,” Tillerson said, using an acronym for the jihadist group.

Tillerson conceded that removing Assad from power could “ultimately” require greater pressure, including military action, from the U.S. or an international coalition, but he said that isn’t the preferred choice. Haley and McMaster also said they didn’t see the U.S. taking action on its own to force a change in leadership.

‘Very Chaotic’

“We’ve seen what that looks like, when you undertake a violent regime change in Libya, and the situation in Libya continues to be very chaotic,” Tillerson said. “We have to learn the lessons of the past and learn the lessons of what went wrong in Libya when you choose that pathway of regime change.”

Until Sunday, Tillerson, 65, the former chief executive of oil giant Exxon Mobil, had consented to few interviews since being sworn in as the top U.S. diplomat in February.

Besides focusing on chemical weapons in Syria, Tillerson said he also will continue to press Russia on its meddling in last year’s U.S. presidential election through hacking and leaking Democrats’ emails, which U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded was ultimately aimed at helping Trump win the White House.

“We will continue to talk with them about how this undermines any hope of improving relations, not just with the United States, but it’s -- it’s pretty evident that they are taking similar tactics into electoral processes throughout Europe and so they’re really undermining any hope for improved relations with many European countries as well,” Tillerson said.

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