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Report: WH Accuses Russia of Gas Attack Cover-Up; Pentagon Holds First Briefing Since Syria Strikes; Mattis Says No Doubt Syrian Regime Behind Gas Attack. 3:30-4p ET

Aired April 11, 2017 - 15:30   ET


[15:30:00] ELLIOT ABRAMS, FORMER DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER UNDER BUSH: Are we going to go after ISIS first? Good. But how does that translate into peace in Syria?

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: They are all good questions. I'm channeling and hearing Sean Spicer say that the President doesn't telegraph what he wants to do in the future. How do you thread the needle? If you're Secretary Mattis, you do have a plan moving forward but don't want to telegraph it to the world.

ABRAMS: You cannot win at the negotiating table which you didn't win on the battlefield in Syria. We're going to need to be tougher and the strikes start that. Maybe we need more men on the ground our side needs to be stronger. I think that's what they are heading for.

BALDWIN: The White House talks about they want it to be an improved political climate so the power is with the Syrian people for Assad to go away but if you're gassing your own people, who are we kidding? How would it ever create a climate like that to empower the people of Syria?

ABRAMS: The end of this has to be, he goes. You can't have this war criminal leading the country which is, by the way, a majority Sunni country and those are the people he's been slaughtering. So, the end result has to be his departure. The trick is how we get there. I think we should be very clear and I hope secretary Mattis is clear, in the end, he's got to go.

BALDWIN: I read something, Elliott, where you said that President Trump didn't become a neocon overnight. Can you explain to me what you meant?

ABRAMS: What I meant is he obviously wants to avoid interventions. The United States has certain global responsibilities that no other country is going to take on, not Russia, not China, not anybody. Frequent, in forcing the international agreements against the use of chemical weapons. So, he is coming to see now as President that we have -- we are the indispensable nation as Madeleine Albright once called it. The President has talked about a lot of making America great again and American greatness. This is part of American greatness.

BALDWIN: Elliott Abrams, as always, thank you so much for coming on. I really appreciate your voice. As we're waiting to hear from secretary Mattis, let me bring you back on here briefly. Elliott had some excellent questions that hopefully will be tossed to the secretary of defense. But you've been in this position of briefing the media oodles and oodles of times. You see the chairs for Secretary Mattis and General Votel.

ABRAMS: All that stuff is pretty well gamed out before they get out there. They go through the likely questions and answers and game out how they are going to respond. It looks like they are starting.

BALDWIN: Let's listen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command in Florida. We'll start with a few opening remarks and proceed directly to your questions. We're planning to go for around 30 minutes with that, Mr. Secretary?

JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Well, thank you Steve. We're on right now?


[15:35:00] MATTIS: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I previously released a statement on the U.S. military's response to the Syrian regimes use of chemical weapons. I thought this was an appropriate time for General Votel and I to update you. Last Tuesday, the Syrian regime attacked its own people using chemical weapons. I have personally reviewed the intelligence and there's no doubt the Syrian regime is responsible for the decision to attack and for the attack itself. In response to the attack, our government began a deliberate process led by the national security council to recommend diplomatic and military options to the President. We met over several days and I spoke with some of our allies.

The National Security Council considered the near century old international prohibition against the use of chemical weapons. The Syrian regime's repeated violation of the international law and the ruthless murders the regime had committed. We determined that a measured military response could best deter the regime from doing this again. Our actions were successful. Based on these considerations, on 6 April, the President directed military action consistent with our vital national interests to deter the use of chemical weapons. This military action demonstrates the United States will not passively stand by while Assad ignores international law and employs chemical weapons he had declared destroyed.

We were aware of the presence of Russians at the airfield and took appropriate actions to ensure no Russians were injured in the attack. Our military policy in Syria has not changed. Our priority is defeat of is. Is presents a clear and present danger and a threat to the United States homeland. In closing, the Syrian regime should think long and hard before it again acts so recklessly in violation of international law against the use of chemical weapons. General Votel will now provide further information on the strike.

GENERAL VOTEL, COMMANDER OF U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Secretary Mattis stated, the United States central command was directed to develop military options and response to the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons. We did that with a goal being to eliminate those capabilities, including air frames, equipment and fuel supplies that provided offensive military capacity for the regime from Shayrat airfield. We did not deliberately target personnel in these strikes. We targeted 59 locations on the airfield and struck 57 of those. We assessed that we achieved our stated objective and the regime's ability to generate offensive military capability from Shayrat airfield, attempted says was the launching point for this chemical attack and has been severely degraded. We are obviously paying close attention to the environment in the wake of these strikes and remain postured to respond as necessary. Meanwhile, we are focused on the defeat ISIS campaign which remains our primary mission. In closing, I want to commend the exceptional skill of our military forces involved in this strike operation. They performed extraordinarily well and we are very, very proud of them.

MATTIS: Well, thank you, General Votel. We can take your questions now. Bob, let's start with yours.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Secretary Mattis, thank you. You mentioned that defeating is in Syria is your main priority. But in light of the chemical attack, is it your view that the U.S. should take some additional steps, such as creating safe zones or no fly zones or even removing Bashar Al Assad from power and I'd ask general Votel to comment on bringing additional troops to Syria to accelerate the campaign?

MATTIS: The goal in Syria and the military campaign is focused on accomplishing that is breaking is, destroying ISIS in Syria. This was a separate issue that arose in the midst of that campaign. The use by the Assad regime of chemical weapons and we addressed that militarily. But the rest of the campaign stays on track exactly as it was before Assad's violation.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You don't see a point of doing safe zones or no fly zones?

MATTIS: Those other issues that you bring up are always under consideration among allies and certainly the President has options but right now the purpose of this attack was singular against the chemical weapons use.

[15:40:00] VOTEL: For the question you directed to me, I would just say, I'm not going to particularly comment on anything we might do in the future here. We remain engaged with the department here and we'll let the leadership make the decisions here and then we'll act accordingly. [15:45:00]

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: For both of you, Mr. Secretary, you said that Assad should think long and hard about doing this again. It seems like you were sending him a very direct military message. What message are you sending to Assad about this? Do -- do you feel -- why do you feel -- what message are you sending and why do you feel he chose to do this not until the Trump administration took office? Did he read the signals from administration officials that is was no longer the top priority? Well, ISIS might be the priority, regime change was not. Do you feel that that's the signal he got and are you sending him a new signal? And for you general Votel, although you don't talk about future military operations, how prepared are you and central do you feel that that's the signal he got and are you sending him a new signal? And for you General Votel, although you don't talk about future military operations, how prepared are you and central command to take on additional military targeting? Do you feel you know even if you can't say where these chemical weapons are at this point?

MATTIS: We believe that Assad has used chemical weapons several times over the last several years, violated the international law that has prohibited their use since 1925. Syria is a signatory to that international convention. For them to have done this several times recently over the last several years is what I mean by recently. You've got to ask him why he chose now to try it again. I trust he regrets it now considering the damage done to his air force. But when I say he should think long and hard about it, I'll just let the mission speak for itself on that score.

VOTEL: Barbara, I would say that as a U.S. central command commander, I'm very confident that we can respond to any directions and orders that the secretary and the President gives us in the region.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you know where the chemical weapons are?

MATTIS: Again, I'm not going to speculate on what we know or don't know but I'm very confident about our forces when we're asked to do things.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: First to General Votel, could you bring us up to date about what measures you are taking in this new more intense environment to protect the forces on the ground in Syria and Secretary Mattis could you please let us know, how does what you're doing militarily in Syria fit into a broader strategy being developed by this administration? How does the strike and the positioning of U.S. forces -- U.S.-backed forces on the ground help in broader strategic sites?

MATTIS: Well, the broader strategy, as you know, is embedded inside a global strategy and overall right now the Americans are making very clear that ISIS is in our cross-hairs and that's what our conduct of the campaign in Syria is designed to take on, is take on ISIS and defeat them. This other effort that came up in the midst of that had to be addressed because it addresses as vital national interest of ours that chemical weapons not be used, that the bar not keep getting lowered by the Assad regime so this becomes common places. We had to make a very, very clear statement on this.

VOTEL: Phil, I would just add that force protection is something we always pay attention to and as the environment always changes, we have to change with that. We continue to pay a lot of attention to that. As we executed this operation, I think we took very prudent measures to make sure that our forces, all of our coalition forces operating with us were well protected and well aware of what was going on and we had prudent measures in place and we've entrusted our commanders on the ground to, you know, with the authority and decision-making capability to go on as they make the assessment. I'm very confident in their ability to do that.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Can you describe anything additional that you can specify that you would have done differently?

MATTIS: I don't think we would have done anything differently.

[15:45:00] [15:50:00] UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: There has been mixed messages from the administration about whether you're calling for regime change in Syria. Are you prepared if there -- are you calling for Assad to step aside and are you prepared militarily if he were to step aside tomorrow? General Votel, have you seen any evidence that the Iranians were involved in this chemical attack and any evidence that Assad is moving his chemical stockpiles around within Syria?

MATTIS: The strike that we're talking about here today was directed at the people who planned it, who held onto the weapons contrary to what they had promised the international community and united nations when they said they had gotten rid of all of those weapons and the reason for the strike was that alone. It was not a harbinger of some change in our military campaign.

VOTEL: Jennifer, I'm unaware of any information on regarding Iran's participation in this and I think we've seen some information that the regime has moved aircraft around so I would imagine there's some movement of his equipment that has taken place. Whether it's chemicals or not, I don't think I can comment on that.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: I'd like to ask both of you if you believe Russia had advanced knowledge of this strike and if Russia should be considered as complicit in this strike?

MATTIS: I can speak for both of us on that one. It's very clear that the Assad regime planned it, orchestrated it and executed it. Beyond that, we can't say right now. We know what I just told you. We don't know anything beyond that.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: In this room on Friday, it was said at the time of the attack that a drone with sighted over that building and they weren't sure whether it was a Russian or senior drone. Has it been determined yet whether that drone was Russian or Syrian?

MATTIS: I don't know. I will tell you that we have gone back through and looked at all of the evidence we can and it is very clear who planned this attack, who authorized this attack and who conducted this attack itself. That we do know with no doubt whatsoever.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Mr. Secretary, why -- can you help us understand why the death of innocent men, women and children from chemical weapon warrants a U.S. military response but the deaths of far more men, women and children in Syria from conventional weapons, barrel bombs, has not warranted a military response?

MATTIS: I think what we have to look at here, is a policy decision by the United States. There is a limit, I think, to what we can do and when you look at what happened with this chemical attack, we knew that we could not stand passive on this. But it was not a statement that we could enter full-fledged, full bore in the most complex civil war probably raging on the planet at this time. So, the intent w to stop the cycle of violence into an area that even in world war II, chemical weapons were not used in battlefields. Even in the Korean war, they were not used on battlefields. Since world war i, there's been an international convention on this. And to stand idly by when that convention is violated, that's what we had to take action on urgently in our own vital interests. Yes, go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: General and Mr. Secretary, for both of you, you were expecting a new counter-ISIS plan this spring. Did us this delay that in any way and what are your thoughts on finding a way for an end point for both the ISIS war and what should happen in Syria with regard to the military campaign and a general campaign that you've been asking for.

MATTIS: Well, the counter-ISIS plan has been put in skeletal form. It's being fleshed out now. It's got to be done in a methodical way where we look at each element of it. A couple weeks ago, Secretary Tillerson had 60, 68 nations in town with his counterparts, the fellow foreign ministers. And they are working on the stabilization efforts in Syria. This is not the United States working alone. Very, very complex security situation. And it's one that we're going to have to address in a methodical matter and it's not something that you can simply add water to a dehydrated plan and it's a full-fledged plan. This is hard work and it's going to take time.

[15:50:00] VOTEL: I would just add on the part of the question directed to me here, I think the campaign plan remains where we thought it would be at this particular point. We're engaged in a very difficult fighting in both Mosul and around the Iraq area which is where we expected to be at this time and we anticipated the fighting would be difficult at this particular part and I think that's what we're seeing. Again, we certainly won't put a timeline on this. It will ultimately prove us to be wrong. But I think this is proceeding about the way we expected it would at this point.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Mr. Secretary, the Vinson strike group has been directed to the Sea of Japan. Has tension ratcheted up just recently in the past few days and can you explain why what has changed in the last several days or weeks? And General Votel, Secretary Mattis mentioned that Assad has used chemical weapons over the last several years. What chemicals have you seen?

MATTIS: Well, I can answer the question. I asked him about my answer, if you wish, right? Of course, we've seen chlorine. It's been documented by independent medical authorities. They have been using chemical weapons, so you're correct. That's what we're looking at.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Anything more specific than that? No other nuclear -- no other nerve agents that you've seen since other than the chlorine in the last several years besides this one attack last week.

MATTIS: I believe you're correct, but this time it was not chlorine quite clearly and we know that for certain. There's no doubt. This is a medical fact. As for as the movement of the Vinson, she's stationed there had in the western Pacific for a reason. She operates freely up and down the Pacific, and she's just on her way up there because that's where we thought it was most prudent to have her at this time. There's not a specific demand signal or specific reason why we're sending her up there.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: It's just unusual for us to know about a ship movement in advance. That is sort of what got everyone's attention. So why was that? Why was it put out in advance? Was it just to signal to North Korea that there would be a show of presence there?

MATTIS: I believe it's because she was originally headed in one direction for an exercise, and we cancelled our role in that exercise, and that's what became public, so we had to explain why she wasn't in that exercise.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Thank you, Secretary Mattis. I wanted to ask you about the status of the deconfliction line. When was the last time you talked to the Russians on it, and what has the absence meant for U.S. pilots and coalition pilots? Are they in a more defensive posture at present?

VOTEL: So, yes. Let me address that. I'm not going to discuss the deconfliction line in any particular detail, but would I emphasize, too, I remain very confident that we are continuing to operate in a very safe and effective manner. Deconfliction line has been very useful for us in the past as a venue for professional airmen-to-air men exchange, and it was useful for us on the night of the strike, both in our prenotifications to the Russians and the immediate communication that we had afterwards.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are we not talking about the deconfliction line because it's not being used at present?

VOTEL: No. That's not what I'm saying.

MATTIS: No. The operation goes on. It's well deconflicted. The operations are going quite safely.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Secretary Mattis, you're a student of history and strategy. You've talked about red lines and the President has talked about red lines. The Russians have talked about red lines. At what point is there a danger therefore spiraling out of control and the conflict between two nuclear-powered countries?

MATTIS: I don't believe I've talked about red lines. I generally shy away from it myself. I recommend Assad be rather caution about violating international law with chemical weapons. I suppose that could be considered a red line so I won't argue the point. It will not spiral out of control you know, Secretary of State Tillerson is in Moscow. We maintain communications with the Russian military and with the diplomatic channels. It will not spiral out of control.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What gives you that assurance? I mean, the Russians have been very clear in their rhetoric? I'll take your point that you've not said the word red line. The Russians have. They have said in another response like the one you launched on April 6th would be a red line for them. How are you so confident that this isn't going to spiral out of control?

MATTIS: Well, I'm confident the Russians will act in their own best interest and there's nothing in their best interest say they want this operation to go out of control.

[15:55:00] UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: As you consider the U.S. force posture after ISIS is defeated in Mosul and Raqqa, are you contemplating maintaining U.S. bases or a U.S. base in Iraqi Kurdistan so as to be able to check any further resurgence of an ISIS-like group?

MATTIS: The short answer is we are in consultations with the Iraqi government about what -- what the stabilization phase looks like. There have been no decisions. There have been no offers made. Either way we near consultation and we're talking about what the tactical situation will probably look like. As can you tell, some that have would be assumptions right now since we have an active enemy still in the Euphrates river valley, in Talafar and the ongoing fight in west Mosul so it would be premature to come to conclusions about that or even enter into the specifics about it now until we actually have this enemy on the run out of there, but we would be willing to engage with -- with the Iraqi government on how this should look in the future. Yes, go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Has the White House given the military authority to preemptively strike at Syria if in fact you had knowledge of a looming chemical attack and then I had a North Korea question.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: But you've not been given authority to preemptively strike if you know in vans of a Syrian strike.

MATTIS: No, we have not. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Does the U.S. view chlorine -- barrel bombs filled with chlorine now as a chemical weapon, and a second question, if I may. Going back to North Korea, are there any feasible or straightforward military actions that the U.S. could take that wouldn't immediately spiral into a broader regional conflict?

MATTIS: I don't want to speculate about North Korean military actions. We owe some confidentiality as we discuss with our allies, this situation that we face up there, but as far as barrel bombs with chlorine. I mean, chemical weapons are chemical weapons, so that is the issue if you're talking about the strike we took. It's not about whether it's delivered with an artillery shell or it's delivered by a helicopter with a barrel bomb or a fighter aircraft with a bomb. It's about chemical weapons, and we've made clear where we stand on that. President Trump has made it exceedingly clear where the United States stands on that sort of malfeasance.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I was hoping you can clarify something in your statement yesterday. You said the cruise missile strikes took out 20 percent of Syria's operational aircraft. There was some confusion over that statement. Can you clarify and explain how much of a blow it was to Syria's overall capability, and general, we're in the process of isolating Raqqa right now. Does the coalition and our partnered forces there have what they need to begin the offenses on Raqqa, and what more resources do they need?

MATTIS: The Syrian air force is not in good shape. It's been worn down by years of combat plus significant maintenance problems. We thought it was -- I thought it was about 20 percent. I think it's around 20 aircraft were taken out which probably equates to about that, although I probably shouldn't have used the 20 percent. We're trying to provide information as it comes in, and this is one of the challenges of trying to get it accurate but get it out as quickly as we can actually give you some fidelity. But it's around 20 aircraft, and that damage to the Syrian air force is pretty severe, as can you tell.

VOTEL: You know, with respect to what's going on in Raqqa, I think we have the capabilities we need to do what we're doing right now which is the isolation of Raqqa, and I think we're seeing that play out every day right now as our partners on the ground very effectively isolate this particular area as we move forward. Obviously, the secretary and I and others are in consultation on what the additional resources we'll need, and I'll just leave it at that. We're talking about what needs.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Mr. Secretary, I just want to clarify something you said earlier because it's an important point. Is it your contention it's chemical weapons if it's a barrel bomb holing chlorine, only that filled with a chemical weapon, that it's the use of a nerve agent that you're making? I want to make sure I understand the point you were making earlier.

MATTIS: Right. I just want to say very clearly that the use of chemical weapons is contrary to the Geneva convention that Syria signed up for, using chemical weapons that Syria agreed under U.N. pressure to remove from their arsenal, the chemical weapons that the Russians certified were gone, that if they use chemical weapons, they are going to pay a very, very stiff price. Okay. Hey, thanks very much, ladies and gentlemen. Appreciate your time here, and I guess waiting this afternoon to talk. Thank you very much.