Marco Rubio was on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. After making the obligatory observation that Tillerson and Haley are at odds (I don’t think that’s the case) he went to the crux of H.R. McMaster’s stated strategy for dealing with Assad:
RUBIO: …As long as Assad is there, you’re going to have a radical jihadist Sunni element, even if you destroy ISIS it’ll be al-Nusra and that new coalition. These people who have been killed and gassed and human rights violations against them will never accept Assad as their rightful ruler, and they will join or become radicalized in order the fight him.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So what should they be doing instead?
RUBIO: Well, here’s the first thing I would tell you is, we have to — and I agree with you, there has to be a strategy outlined that is based on reality. This is not Libya. I also heard that he kind of analogized it to Libya. The Libyan situation — Libya, Gadhafi was overthrown by his people. What happened afterwards, the lack of a strategic plan or engagement by the international community after Gadhafi’s removal is what’s led to the chaos that we see in Libya today.
On the case of Syria today, it’s much more complicated than it was three, four, five years ago. But there are still things that can be done. We should be increasing sanctions significantly on Iranian and Russian interests that are helping Assad, and particularly this Boeing deal should be canceled. The second thing we that we need to examine is how can we suppress the air defenses of the Assad regime? And that may include coalition use of force to ensure that these offensive operations from the air are not happening, and by the way keep our troops there. Beyond that —
STEPHANOPOULOS: But you can’t do that if Russia’s not on board, can you?
Rubio is right on a couple of things. He is definitely right that Iranian and Russian interests are propping up Assad and to the extent that we fail to take action there, Assad remains secure. And he’s right that a weak Assad does breed an Islamist reaction. I emphasize weak because the Assads have ruled Syria for quite a while and it wasn’t until the Arab Spring nonsense that Hillary Clinton went from declaring Assad a “reformer” to demanding his ouster.
Where he’s wrong, though, is the idea that Assad’s removal is going to do anything at all for the eradication of ISIS. It isn’t. If Assad goes away the power struggle continues with a slightly different cast of characters. ISIS and al-Qaeda developed without Assad and they will live on whether or not he does. Rubio’s desire to expand the war into a suppression of Syrian air defenses (which are manned by Russians) and grounding their air force is mind-boggling.
On Face the Nation, John McCain weighed in on the subject and he was followed up by the FTN panel which featured former CIA deputy director Mike Morell:
DICKERSON: We turn now to Senator John McCain, who joins us from Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Senator, I want to ask you. You would like the administration to take a series of steps in Syria to knock out the Syrian air force, set up safe zones. It appears from Secretary Tillerson that the administration is not going to do anything more than the actions it already has taken.
What is your reaction to that?
MCCAIN: Well, I think what the president did was an excellent first step and it was a reversal of the last eight years.
And I think it was important. But it is now vitally important we develop a strategy, we put that strategy in motion, and we bring about peace in the region. And that obviously means that there has to be a cessation of these war crimes.
John, dropping, using chemical weapons is a war crime, but starving thousands of people in prisons is also. Barrel bombs which indiscriminately kill innocent civilians, precision strikes done by Russians on hospitals in Aleppo are war crimes as well.
So there’s a lot of war crimes that are taking place. And another area — aspect of this that I do not agree with the secretary is that you have to just concentrate on ISIS.
We will take Mosul. We will take Raqqa. And we better have strategies as to how to handle those places once we have won it. But they are not disconnected from Bashar al-Assad and the al Qaeda and the war crimes that have been taking place.
You can’t — to a large degree, Bashar al-Assad, by polarizing the Syrian people, have also given rise to ISIS and al Qaeda. So they are both connected. And I believe that the United States of America can address both at the same time. We can walk and chew gum.
We have the capability to do both. And, yes, we want a negotiated settlement, but the only way that that will happen is if it is not in their interests to continue what they have been successful at for over eight years. And that is why I thought, symbolically and psychologically, the president’s action was very important, but now we better follow it up. And, by the way, we should have cratered the runways.
DICKERSON: Just to follow up on that, Senator, Secretary of State Tillerson said when I listed those other parts of Syrian efforts that you mention, he said that America needs to — quote — “keep its priorities straight and focus on ISIS.”
But your argument is that taking care of the humanitarian actions that Bashar al-Assad is — is taking, that that is a part of the fight against ISIS as well.
MCCAIN: I think they are totally connected.
And also, when you see these crimes that are being committed, they are horrifying. John, I also believe that a grieving mother whose child has been killed isn’t too concerned whether it is a chemical weapon or a barrel bomb. He is still slaughtering people. And we may stop the chemical weapons.
But we have also got to stop the other indiscriminate, inhumane war crimes that are being committed as well. And that means, obviously, trying to set up some kind of safe zone, so that these refugees can have a place where they can be. And, also, that would help with the refugee flow issue.
I’ve been critical of McCain for years. I’m pretty much of an interventionist type of guy but McCain has romances with wars of choice that are irrelevant to US national security and have no clear end state. He’s been flogging US intervention in Syria for a few years and this is just a new phase of the same old song.
Yes, war crimes are being committed by Assad. And by ISIS. And by the Iranians. And, seemingly, by the Russians. It seems to me that we have to focus on macro issues, like the use of chemical weapons in defiance of international treaties and a UN Security Council resolution because otherwise, all we will get done is punishing war crimes. Bashar Assad did not give rise to either ISIS or al-Qaeda. Sorry. But that is a provable fact. If you examine the history of either organization you will not find anyone saying, “we’ve got to become international terrorists because Assad is a bad hombre.”
I’m sorry for the people caught in the middle, but life can really suck in the Middle East. The fact that I have sympathy for them doesn’t mean I want to send tens of thousands of American troops there and it doesn’t mean I want to get into a fight with Russia, a fight that will inevitably result in adventurism in the Baltic States and Poland, to try to establish “safe zones.”
Taking Assad out is something that we will have to contemplate in the future, but I think McMaster is correct… and I trust his strategic sense and regional expertise much more that McCain’s… that we have our plate full with ISIS. Removing Assad, who is under Russian protection, and the resulting increased level of chaos doesn’t help us out in that fight at all.
DICKERSON: …Mike, I want to start with you. What did the president accomplish with his attacks in Syria?
MIKE MORELL, CBS NEWS SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: John, I think he accomplished two things. One is, I think he sent a very strong message to the Syrian president that he cannot use chemical weapons, that he cannot use sarin in the future. And I imagine that that will stick. I don’t think Assad will use sarin again. I think that is — deterrence worked here.
I think the second message that was sent was to our other adversaries, primarily North Korea and Iran, that the United States, that this president, will back up red lines, that he will protect the interests of the United States with military action, if necessary. It’s a very, very powerful message as well.
I think what wasn’t accomplished here was as important as what was. And what wasn’t accomplished is, we did not deter the Syrian president from continuing the war against his own people using conventional weapons.
DICKERSON: Mike, what did you make of Secretary Tillerson’s very clear two-step process? Get rid of ISIS. That’s the priority. He almost sounded as if dealing with Assad on the barrel bombs and the humanitarian blockage was a distraction from ISIS. How do you see those two matching up?
MORELL: Right. So I think Senator McCain is exactly right. These are linked. You cannot ultimately defeat ISIS without getting rid of Assad. He has no credibility with the largest percentage of his population, which are the Sunnis. He will never get it back. He will never get their — their — their — their support back. And as long as that’s the case, as long as he’s there, that will feed extremists, whether it’s — whether it’s this ISIS or whether it’s ISIS 2.0 down the road, Assad has to go. They are connected.
Morell is complementary of the administration’s action, but he, too, wants to expand our operations in Syria from destroying ISIS and keeping Assad from using chemical weapons to the idiot Responsibility to Protect (R2P) championed by Samantha Power. Yes, Assad is waging war against his own people. It is a civil war. That’s what happens in a civil war. The fact that he is still doing what he’s done for the past four years does not make a case for an expansion of our efforts.
I warned a month ago that the press had suddenly discovered Assad was a psychopathic killer. None of this was important when Obama was in the White House but now that Trump is there it is something that we just have to do. This is the “we-have-to-do-something” mentality that sent us into Somalia with no idea of what we wanted to do. I hope McMaster and Mattis and Tillerson have enough steel in their spines to not be stampeded into some damn fool intervention in Syria for humanitarian reasons. That mission will end exactly like the missions in Lebanon and Somalia.