Interview With George Stephanopoulos of ABC This Week
Secretary of State
QUESTION: So what will President Trump do now? Will Thursday’s strike be followed by a new strategy to remove Assad from power? That was my first question for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in his first interview on This Week.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, George, 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.
Once we can eliminate the battle against ISIS, conclude that – and it is going quite well – then we hope to turn our attention to achieving ceasefire 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 the parties on a way forward. And it is through that political process that we believe the Syrian people will ultimately be able to decide the fate of Bashar al-Assad.
QUESTION: But is that political process, is that diplomatic process, now going to require greater military force to increase your leverage? You’ve seen Senators McCain and Graham call for taking out the Syrian Air Force, call for creating safe zones in Syria.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, as you know, George, the situation in Syria relative to the battlefield is quite complex, because there are multiple engagements underway. As I’ve said, we have the war to defeat ISIS, in which many of those battle plans are being coordinated between the U.S., its coalition agreements, Turkey, some of the Syrian opposition, and others; and it is being coordinated somewhat with the Syrian regime and the Russian forces to put pressure on ISIS to eliminate them.
Having said that, there are other battle areas still underway between the opposition and regime forces, and it’s further complicated that we have the presence of a number of al-Qaida forces inside of Syria. So the country is in a very chaotic situation relative to the battlefield.
Having said that, that just demands, I think, greater effort on the part of a large array of coalition parties both regionally as well as those that are directly engaged in the fight itself inside of Syria. So I’m not suggesting this is going to be a simple way forward, but we do have, I think, a fairly good consensus building among a number of those parties who would be part of the process that this is the – this is the best way forward.
QUESTION: Russia doesn’t seem to be part of that consensus. President Putin has called what happened on Thursday a significant blow to the relationship with the United States.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I guess I’m not too surprised that Russia might make that statement. 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. And so the failure related to the recent strike and the recent terrible chemical weapons attack, in large measure, is a failure on Russia’s part to achieve its commitment to the international community.
QUESTION: I want to get into Russia a little bit more in a second, but a couple more questions first directly on Syria. You mentioned again that the outcome of the political process will be that Syrian people can decide the fate of Assad. When you said that first, last week on March 30 meeting with the Turkish president, are you worried at all that that was taken as a green light by Assad to launch that chemical attack?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: George, I don’t see how that could be the case. This is not the first chemical attack launched by Assad. In fact, there were two other chemical attacks the week of March 25th and the 30th, and there have been chemical weapons attacks made by the Bashar al-Assad regime in the past. So this was just the latest of a series of violations.
QUESTION: But you accept that right now the Syrian people have no way to remove Assad; that’s going to take greater pressure from the United States, from an international coalition, perhaps military pressure?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, ultimately, it could, George. But 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, and I would argue that the life of the Libyan people is not all that well off today. So I think 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.
So we know this is going to be hard work, but we think it’s also a process that will lead to a durable and lasting stability inside of Syria. Anytime you go on and have a violent change at the top, it is very difficult to create the conditions for stability longer-term.
QUESTION: So it sounds like from what you’re saying right now there is no real change in the United States military stance toward Syria from what it was last week.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: That’s correct, George. 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.
And so the strike was a message to Bashar al-Assad that your multiple violations of your agreements at the UN, your agreements under the chemical weapons charter back in 2013, that those would not go without a response in the future. And we are asking Russia to fulfill its commitment, and we are asking and calling on Bashar al-Assad to cease the use of these weapons. Other than that, there is no change to our military posture.
QUESTION: You mentioned earlier – you mentioned the Russian complicity perhaps with the chemical program in Syria. We now know, according to U.S. military officials, there were anywhere from 12 to a hundred Russians on that base when the chemical attack was launched. Does that suggest to you that the Russians knew or should have known what was going on, that they were complicit?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, George, I’m not seeing any hard evidence that connects the Russians directly to the planning or execution of this particular chemical weapons attack, and indeed, that’s why we’ve been trying to be very clear that the Russians were never targeted in this strike. This strike was to target the airbase from which these chemical weapons attacks were launched and to take – to render that airbase and certainly its infrastructure no longer usable. So I think the strike – it was well-planned, it was proportional, it was directly related to the chemical weapons attack, and no other parties were targeted.
QUESTION: At a minimum, Russia hasn’t done enough to get rid of that chemical stockpile, because it’s still there and the Russians are still on that base. One of our next guests, Congressman Adam Schiff, has said you should deliver an ultimatum to Foreign Minister Lavrov when you meet with him next week on this issue. Will you do that?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, we’ve already, I think, issued some very strong statements, George; and yes, that will be part of the discussions when I visit Moscow next week is to call upon Foreign Minister Lavrov and the Russian Government to fulfill the obligation it made to the international community when it 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. I don’t draw conclusions of complicity at all; but clearly, they’ve been incompetent, and perhaps they’ve just simply been outmaneuvered by the Syrians.
QUESTION: Do you think this is an opportunity or are you hoping this is an opportunity perhaps to drive a wedge between Assad and Putin, to drive Putin into a – into a commitment right now to do more to remove Assad?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, George, I’m hopeful that we can have constructive talks with the Russian Government, with Foreign Minister Lavrov, and have Russia be supportive of a process that will lead to a stable Syria. Clearly, they are Bashar al-Assad’s current ally; they should have the greatest influence on Bashar al-Assad and certainly his decisions to use chemical weapons. They should have the greatest influence on him to cause him to no longer use those. I hope that Russia is thinking carefully about its continued alliance with Bashar al-Assad, because every time one of these horrific attacks occurs, it draws Russia closer in to some level of responsibility.
QUESTION: And if we determine they are responsible, what will happen?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, that is going to be clearly very damaging to U.S.-Russian relations. I do not believe that the Russians want to have worsening relationships with the U.S., but it’s going to take a lot of discussion and a lot of dialogue to better understand what is the relationship that Russia wishes to have with the U.S.
QUESTION: Well, one of the big issues complicating that relationship, of course, is Russian interference in last year’s election. That’s the consensus view of all of our intelligence agencies. Is that on the agenda for your meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, and what can you say to them? What will be the consequences if Russia tries something like that again?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, George, we’ve had previous conversations about it when I met with Foreign Minister Lavrov in Bonn, Germany on the margins of the G20. 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 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. So this is something that Russia needs to confront themselves and I think examine carefully as to how is this helping them achieve their longer-term objectives.
QUESTION: And U.S. sanctions will remain in place?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: There is no reason to be lifting sanctions, George. The reason the sanctions were put in place continue to exist. There has been no change in the status of the situation in Ukraine or Crimea, and those sanctions will remain in place until those – until those issues are addressed.
QUESTION: What message do you think North Korea should take from President Trump’s decision to strike Syria last week?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think the message that any nation can take is if you’re – if you violate international norms, if you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken.
And I think in terms of North Korea, we’ve been very clear that our objective is a denuclearized Korean peninsula. We have no objective to change the regime in North Korea; that is not our objective. And so the whole reasons underlying the development of a nuclear program in North Korea are simply not credible.
QUESTION: There’s been at least one report that the United States has drawn up plans perhaps to consider assassinating Kim Jong-un. That’s not true?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: I am aware of no such plans.
QUESTION: In your – in the President’s meeting with President Xi of China, the President has often complained that China isn’t doing enough to take on the North Korean nuclear program. Did he convince President Xi to take more aggressive action, and what was the response of the Chinese to the President’s determination to go it alone if he must?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: George, I can tell you that President Trump, President Xi had very extensive discussions regarding the serious situation in North Korea. They met for quite some time one-on-one to discuss North Korea, and there was a full range of options that were discussed between the two leaders.
President Xi expressed agreement that the situation has reached a new level of seriousness and threat. He expressed the view that he wanted to be supportive in terms of causing the regime in Pyongyang to change its view around the future need for those weapons. China has expressed on multiple occasions and they reaffirmed it in our discussions with us here in Mar-a-Lago that their policy is unchanged, and that is for a denuclearized Korean peninsula.
So I think --
QUESTION: Are you seeing the actions you need to see?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, we’ll wait and see, George. It’s only been a couple of weeks since we announced our policy changes and have called on the Government of China to take additional steps. We expect that they will. They have indicated that they will. And I think we need to allow them time to take actions. And we will continue to be in very close discussions with them, but the conversations have been very open, George, and very candid.
QUESTION: How much time do we have with North Korea? How close is Kim Jong-un to developing a weapon that could actually reach the United States?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, the assessments are obviously somewhat difficult, but clearly, he has made significant advancements in delivery systems; and that is what concerns us the most: the sophistication around their rocket launch programs; their sophistication around the type of fueling that they use; and their working their way towards the test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. And these are the kinds of progress that give us the greatest concern, so we’ve been quite clear with the regime in Pyongyang that that’s what we want them to cease.
So what we would hope is that with no further testing, obviously their program doesn’t progress. And that’s what we’ve asked for is for them to cease all this testing before we can begin to think about having further talks with them.
QUESTION: And that development of an intercontinental missile, that’s a red line for President Trump, isn’t it?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: If we judge that they have perfected that type of a delivery system, then that becomes a very serious stage of their further development.
QUESTION: Finally, sir, on the issue of Mexico, you met with the Mexican foreign minister at the State Department this week. In that meeting, did you make it clear that the United States expects Mexico to pay for the border wall President Trump has proposed?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: We had no conversation about that issue, George. We were – we have had, I think, very productive talks around actions that can be taken to slow and stem and discourage transmigration of people coming from Central America through Mexico and entering the United States.
And in fact, I know you’ve – I’m sure you’ve seen the data that is coming out and the level of immigration illegal crossings from Mexico, whether it’s of Mexican nationals but in particular of Central American nationals, has dropped dramatically. So I think Mexico is quite pleased, and we’ve had a number of discussions with them on how we work together to continue to make further progress.
QUESTION: That’s surprising to me, no discussion of paying for the border wall, since President Trump spoke about it so often during the campaign. Is it the policy of the United States that Mexico must pay for that wall?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: George, it’s just not part of our discussions between the foreign minister and myself. We’re also talking about how to organize even a greater effort around transnational crime and counternarcotics to stem the flow of narcotics that flow into the United States and the flow of weapons from the United States into Mexico that supports the cartels. So we’re really focused on working at very high levels to address some of these problems and challenges that are really in the interest of both of our countries to make progress on.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thanks for your time this morning.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: It’s my pleasure, George.