Remarks With National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster
Secretary of State
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Good evening, all. I particularly want to try to just 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 this – last month, March 25th and 30th, in Hama province as well. We have a very high level of confidence that the attacks were carried out by aircraft under the direction of the Bashar al-Assad regime, and we also have very high confidence that the attacks involved the use of sarin nerve gas. At least the past three attacks, we have fairly high – we have high confidence on that.
I think it’s also clear that previous agreements that had been entered into pursuant to UN 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, and 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 it’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 may then be adopted by others. So it’s important that some action be taken on behalf of the international community to make clear that the use of chemical weapons continues 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-Qaida 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 tonight, which we feel is 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 as well – in Europe as well as in 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.
NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR MCMASTER: I really have very little to add, except to say that it was important during the President’s deliberations and the deliberations with his leadership that we weighed, of course, the risk associated with any military action, we weighed that against – 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.
QUESTION: 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?
NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR 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 sorts of chemicals that were used in the attack, that’s – 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 then confirmation of the type of agent that was used, which is a nerve agent. And so that was the initial – the initial interactions with the President were about the attack and his – and responding to his questions about the nature of the attack, the scope of the attack, and who was responsible, I think in particular.
And then we convened a meeting of the National Security Council, the Principals Small Group – or was it the full – it was almost the full National Security Council – to deliberate on options. There were three options that you can imagine which those were. There were three options that we were discussing – 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 the principals on the National Security Council here in Florida and then by videotelephone conference back to Washington. And after a meeting of considerable length and a far-reaching discussion, the President decided – decided to act. And that’s the general sequence of events. So two rather – two rather 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: I think just – as I said, as I think H.R. has said, this was a very deliberative process. There was a third 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 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, and those were rejected for any number of reasons. And in my view, the President made the exact correct decision.
QUESTION: Secretary Tillerson, can you tell us a little bit about your discussion on how --
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you said you – Mr. Secretary, you said you talked to the international --
MR SPICER: Hallie.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, did you speak with president --
SECRETARY TILLERSON: I’ll let Sean referee here. (Laughter.)
MR SPICER: We’ll go to Hallie.
QUESTION: Did you or 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? 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.
QUESTION: And can you talk about your expectations for what you think you will hear from President Putin or from Mr. Lavrov?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: I’ll let them speak for themselves.
QUESTION: 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 in his thinking. Just a couple of years ago, his version was to stay out of Syria. He talked about the images that sort of moved him in 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?
NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR MCMASTER: No, that wasn’t discussed as any part of the deliberations.
QUESTION: And on the target, anything else on specifically what you believe was destroyed on this target?
NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR MCMASTER: There were – I’ll let – 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 continue mass murder attacks against Syria’s – the Syrian civilians.
And the one thing that I will tell you though, there was an effort to minimize – to minimize risk to third-country nationals at that airport – I think you read Russians from that – but 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, so that that would not be ignited and cause a hazard to civilians or anyone else.
MR SPICER: Margaret.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, if I could? Mr. Secretary --
QUESTION: Actually, can I ask H.R. – sorry – the Secretary and Mr. McMaster. What is an overriding message here? Is it that it’s not clearly a declaration of war, but is it that for President Trump and his 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? And both of you weigh in.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think as you just simply 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, cross the line on violating commitments they’ve made, and crossed the line in the most heinous of ways. I think it is clear that President Trump has made that statement to the world tonight.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, can I ask you a clarifying question?
QUESTION: And on China --
MR SPICER: Hold on, hold on.
NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR MCMASTER: I really have no further comment on that question. I think the Secretary’s covered it comprehensively.
QUESTION: Did you tell China in advance --
MR SPICER: Hold on one second.
QUESTION: Can I ask – Mr. Secretary, can I ask you to clarify Russia again? You said no contacts were made with Russia before the strikes today. Do I have that correct?
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.
QUESTION: On the ground in Syria?
QUESTION: Can you explain how that happened?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: In Syria.
QUESTION: Can you explain, Mr. Secretary, that process? How were the Russians notified?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Let me let – let me let H.R. get to that.
NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR MCMASTER: There are – there are normal channels open for de-confliction, and I’ll just defer that to the Pentagon just for accuracy. So, but the Pentagon knows it’s going to be talking to the press here soon, and I think it would be better if they gave you a more precise answer if you’re looking for details.
QUESTION: 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 action?
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, and 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 governments – and there are local leaders who are ready to return, some who’ve left as refugees that are 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.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary and General McMaster, was this – does this strike significantly change Assad’s military capability – ability to carry out an attack like this, or is it really about sending a message that this kind of attack of – 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 to 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.
NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR 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. I mean, 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 – 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 that– is with the – the President’s decision in response to this mass murderous – 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 UN 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.
MR SPICER: Jen Jacobs.
QUESTION: 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.
QUESTION: Can you talk a little bit about whether there might have just been an emotional reaction to this from President Trump? I mean, 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 some reaction from President Xi?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: No, I don’t think it was – I do not view it as emotional reaction at all. I think it’s – as President Trump evaluated this first attack – these attacks had 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 the 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.
MR SPICER: We’ll do one more. Vivian and that’s (inaudible).
QUESTION: Sir, I wanted to ask you to clarify something (inaudible) first, and then I also have a military question. You were saying 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.
QUESTION: Maybe that was a military question.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: 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 proximate to one another.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: And it is – 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.
QUESTION: 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 – 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 in agreement with the Russian military to de-conflict, because our target in this attack was not Russian. It was not the Russians. It was not their forces nor any Russian individuals. Our target was this airfield and the Syrian regime.
QUESTION: Okay. And --
NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR MCMASTER: I would just add – I would just add one thing. So to – the purpose was not to receive permission. The purpose was to reduce the chances of Russian casualties --
NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR MCMASTER: -- 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. Have a great night. Take care.