Tillerson: Russia 'complicit' or 'incompetent' with Syria

PHOTO: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at Palm Beach International Airport on April 6, 2017 in West Palm Beach, Florida.PlayJoe Raedle/Getty Images, file
WATCH US launches military strike on Syrian air base

Speaking to reporters in West Palm Beach, Florida after President Donald Trump's statement concerning U.S. missile strikes against Syria, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Thursday night had harsh words for Russia, which he blamed for failing to rein in its Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad.

"Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent," Tillerson said in an off-camera briefing with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, referring to Moscow's apparent inability to prevent the Syrian government from using chemical weapons earlier this week despite a 2013 agreement to remove them from the country.

Tillerson pointedly said the United States did not discuss the military strike with Russian President Vladimir Putin or the Russian political leadership in Moscow either before or after it occurred. But the U.S. military said it communicated with the Russian military to minimize any chance of Russian casualties -- in particular Russians operating out of the targeted airfield.

The U.S. military also avoided striking a suspected sarin gas storage facility at the targeted airport because it feared hitting the facility would have caused the deadly gas to be dispersed.

Tillerson is set to travel to Moscow next week for meetings with Russian officials, a trip which is sure to take on added urgency in light of the U.S. military action.

McMaster provided additional details on the timeline of the president’s decision. Not long after the chemical weapons attack on Tuesday, it became clear that it was carried out by Syrian government aircraft and that it involved sarin gas, McMaster said.

Late Wednesday, the national security council discussed three options for responding. The President asked for more information on two of the options. Thursday, the NSC convened again, presenting answers to the president’s questions and he made his decision.

The airstrike was entirely a U.S. operation. No military personnel from any other nation took part, but Tillerson said there were consultations with U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East.

"The response from our allies in Europe as well as in the region in the Middle East has been overwhelmingly supportive," Tillerson said.

McMaster made it clear that the military action was a limited attack that did not significantly degrade the capabilities of the Syrian military. Syria still maintains the ability to carry out further sarin gas attacks just like it did on Tuesday.

The secretary of state insisted, however, that the attack sent a message.

"I think it does demonstrate that President Trump is willing to act when governments and government actors cross the line," Tillerson said. "It's clear that President Trump made that statement to the world tonight."