Following missile strike Tillerson and McMaster try to repair the damage

Secretary of State Tillerson and the President’s National Security Adviser General McMaster engage in damage limitation following missile strike but impression of policy chaos within the Trump administration remains.

April 10,  2017

Alexander Mercouris

That Friday’s missile strike on Sharyat air base was an impulsive and ill-judged move ordered by an inexperienced and emotional President after seeing television pictures of dead children gained further support on Sunday when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the President’s National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster both gave television interviews which bore all the hallmarks of a damage limitation exercise.

Tillerson’s interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC News was longer and more informative, but McMaster’s interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News made essentially the same points.  Briefly these are

(1) that the missile attack on Sharyat air base is intended as a one-off;

(2) that the US will not attack Syria to achieve regime change there, and that President Assad’s position will be decided by the Syrians themselves;

(3) that the priority remains the fight against ISIS;

(4) that the missile strike was not intended as an anti-Russian move and the Trump administration still seeks better relations with Russia.

In ruling out regime change in Syria Tillerson – who has finally come into his own as Secretary of State – was the clearer.

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 cease fire 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 of the parties on a way forward.

And it is through that political process that we believe the Syrian people will awfully be able to decide the fate of Bashar al-Assad.

McMaster in his interview said essentially the same thing.  Whilst he made it clear that the US would rather not see President Assad remain President of Syria, McMaster also said that it is not for the US to remove him

What we really need to do, and what everyone who’s involved in this conflict needs to do is to do everything they can to resolve this civil war, to halt this humanitarian catastrophe, this political catastrophe, not only in Syria, but the catastrophe is affecting the greater Middle East, it’s affecting Europe and it’s a threat to the American people as well.

And so, to do that, what’s required is some kind of a political solution to that very complex problem. And what Ambassador Haley pointed out is it’s very difficult to understand how a political solution could result from the continuation of the Assad regime.

Now, we are not saying that we are the ones who are going to affect that change.

In ruling out regime change Tillerson went further, even citing the disastrous Libyan experience

STEPHANOPOULOS: 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.

TILLERSON: Well, ultimately, it could, George. But, you know, 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. Any time you go in and have a violent change at the top, it is very difficult to create the conditions for stability longer-term.

On the missile strike itself, McMaster again said it was intended merely as a ‘signal’ and was not even intended to degrade Syria’s military capability to any measurable degree

I think what’s important to remember is, our objective — our objective was to deter the continued use, because there’s been a pattern of the abuse of chemical weapons by the Assad regime and his mass murder attacks against innocent civilians. That was the objective……

And so, what’s significant about the strike is not that it was meant to take out the Syrian regime’s capacity or ability to commit mass murder of its own people, but it was to be a very strong signal to Assad and his sponsors that the United States cannot stand idly by as he is murdering innocent civilians — what was a redline in 2013. And so, that was the important objective to keep in mind here.

Tillerson said the same thing, and confirmed that overall US policy in Syria had not been changed either by the Khan Sheikhoun attack or by the missile strike on Sharyat air base

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 U.N., 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’re 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.

Both Tillerson and McMaster in their different ways went out of their way to be as conciliatory towards Russia as possible.

Both made clear that they do not believe the Russians were complicit in the chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun.  Both spoke of Russia as having a potentially important role in achieving a political settlement in Syria.  McMaster made it clear that the option of a US attack on the Russian military in Syria is ruled out

WALLACE: Let me bring in — you mentioned Russia. Russia has sent, as Kristin Fisher reported, has sent a warship into the Mediterranean. And over the weekend, the prime minister of Russia, Medvedev, wrote, the U.S. is, quote, “on the verge of a military clash with Russia.”

Sir, what are we prepared to do if Russia defends its interests in Syria?

MCMASTER: Well, this is part of the problem with Syria is Russia’s sponsorship for this murderous regime.

And if we would want to appeal rationally to Russia, this is a great opportunity for the Russian leadership to reevaluate what they’re doing.

Neither Tillerson nor McMaster gave any hint that any further sanctions against Russia – such as the British are calling for – were being seriously considered.

As it happens on the question of Russia it was McMaster who was the more informative.  When asked to speak about the state of relations between the US and Russia this is what he had to say

WALLACE: General, what is our relationship with Russia and Putin today?

MCMASTER: Well, today, it can be whatever the Russians want it to be. Do they want it to be a relationship of competition and potential conflict? I don’t see how that’s in Russian interest. Or do they want it to be where a relationship in which we can find areas of cooperation that are — that are in our mutual interest?

How is it in anyone’s interest that this conflict in Syria and this catastrophe in the greater Middle East continue?

And they can be part of the solution or they can continue what has been really a very sophisticated campaign of subversion against Western interests and a campaign of subversion and intervention on behalf of a murderous regime in the Middle East.

And so, I think this is what our secretary of state will be exploring with the Russian leadership this week and the president is determined to do everything he can to advance American interests. And if that entails working with others to come to solutions in the world that enhance our security, the president will do that. And it’s really now up to the Russian leadership to reevaluate what they are doing in the Middle East.

This makes it fairly clear that the Trump administration is not seeking confrontation with Russia in Syria, and is still looking for ways to work with Russia over Syria and other issues.

Within certain limits these comments of Tillerson and McMaster are reassuring, as of course they are intended to be.  Those who fear – or hope – that the US is about to attack Syria to achieve regime change there, and is willing to go to war with Russia in order to achieve it, can rest assured that that is not going to happen.

Overall however there is nothing reassuring at all about this disastrous episode.

It turns out that the entire Syrian policy of the US can be thrown into confusion and put in jeopardy at a whim, because the President has suffered an emotional spasm at seeing pictures of dead children on television.  As a result missiles are launched, people are killed and senior officials like Tillerson and McMaster then have to do the rounds of the television studios to limit the damage.

More seriously there doesn’t seem to be anyone in the administration with the strength or confidence to restrain the President when he behaves in this way.  Normally that would be the work of General McMaster, who is his National Security Adviser.  However the impression General McMaster gives in his interview is of a technician and manager, not a strategic thinker, with the result that he appears to see his role purely as one of providing the President with a tool-kit of options to do what he wants, rather than of giving him strategic advice, or of pointing out to him how doing what he wants might contradict his own policies.

This administration does not seem to have a person with the knowledge or experience or authority to give the President strategic advice.  Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner lack the necessary experience or authority, and both seem to be engaged in a bitter feud with each other.  Tillerson is still finding his way and anyway seems too distant from the President to fulfil that role.  One senses that General Flynn for all his well-publicised managerial failings was the nearest approximation this administration had to such a person, and that with him gone the administration is all at sea.

That doubtless also explains the increasingly undisciplined behaviour of Nikki Haley.  Not only is she being allowed to wander around the television studios unchecked, firing off comments which she has clearly not coordinated either with the White House or the State Department, but she is gaining a level of prominence which is completely out of proportion to her supposed role as the US’s UN ambassador.  At the moment, instead of being obviously subordinate to Tillerson and McMaster, she appears to be their equal.

It is difficult to avoid the impression that Haley, who is a politician not a diplomat, and who was previously governor of South Carolina and was apparently seriously considered by Mitt Romney for his Vice-Presidential running mate, is running what is in effect an election campaign, with her sights ultimately on the White House.  Thus the publicity stunts, like the waving of photos of dead children during a UN Security Council session, which annoyed the veteran diplomats present, but which was clearly aimed at the US television audience.

One result of Haley’s undisciplined behaviour is that the administration either finds itself pulled along by her comments, with the result that Haley is in effect making policy for the White House, or officials like McMaster have to find some way of reconciling what she says with the administration’s actual policies, which may be completely different.  A perfect example of this was McMaster elaborate explanation during his Fox News interview explaining why despite the obvious differences between the things Haley and Tillerson are saying, on the subject of regime change in Syria they are actually saying the same thing.

WALLACE: The Trump administration seems to be sending mixed signals this weekend. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley says that getting rid of Assad is a priority. On the other hand, Secretary of State Tillerson says that first, we have to get rid of ISIS, destroy ISIS, Assad can wait.

So, which is it? How does the president see this playing out in Syria?

MCMASTER: Well, both Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Haley are right about this. What we really need to do, and what everyone who’s involved in this conflict needs to do is to do everything they can to resolve this civil war, to halt this humanitarian catastrophe, this political catastrophe, not only in Syria, but the catastrophe is affecting the greater Middle East, it’s affecting Europe and it’s a threat to the American people as well.

And so, to do that, what’s required is some kind of a political solution to that very complex problem. And what Ambassador Haley pointed out is it’s very difficult to understand how a political solution could result from the continuation of the Assad regime.

Not surprisingly, the Russians are completely unimpressed by all this, as Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s spokesman, has just made clear.

George W. Bush and Barack Obama, though committed to disastrous policies, did at least have by US standards relatively coherent administrations.  The impression this administration gives is one of chaos.

Source:http://theduran.com/missile-strike-tillerson-mcmaster-damage-limitation/

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