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Ret. Adm. James Winnefeld on "Face the Nation"

| Apr. 15, 2018

On CBS's "Face the Nation," James A. Winnefeld, Jr. says that the joint strikes by the American, British, and French militaries on targets in Syria showed that the international community will not tolerate the normalization of the use of chemical weapons.

The U.S. says missile strikes on three sites in Syria early Saturday were successful in setting the Syrian government's chemical weapons program back years. The strikes came in response to the suspected use of poison gas against civilians in the outskirts of Damascus on April 7. 

Retired Navy Admiral James Winnefeld, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a CBS News military and homeland security analyst, and Ambassador James Jeffrey, the former U.S. envoy to Turkey and Iraq, joined us to discuss the efficacy of the strikes, the impact on U.S. relations with Russia and more.

The following is a transcript of the interview with Winnefeld and Jeffrey that aired Sunday, April 15, 2018, on "Face the Nation."  

BRENNAN: We want to take a closer look at the situation in Syria with retired Navy Admiral James Winnefeld, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and now a CBS News military and homeland security analyst. Also with us is Ambassador James Jeffrey, the former U.S. envoy to Turkey and Iraq under President George W. Bush and under the Obama administration as well. 

Thank you both for coming on the show. 

Admiral, this attack in Syria hit three locations. The Pentagon says its set the chemical weapons program back at least a few years. How do you assess its efficacy? 

RET. ADM. JAMES WINNEFELD, FORMER JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF VICE CHAIR: Well, first of all, we have to understand that more than anything else this attack was about the international community standing up one more time to prevent the normalization of the use of chemical weapons. Remember, it's not too long ago that the community did this as well when Russia made an assassination attempt in Britain and the -- and many countries ejected Russian diplomats. Well, this is yet another example of that community standing up and pushing back saying we're not going to allow this to happen. 

BRENNAN: Do you see that -- would this have happened were it not for what you just described happening in the U.K. with that poisoning of that former Russian agent? 

WINNEFELD: Yes, I think it would have happened. And it's a question of how much accumulated misbehavior on the part of Assad regime using chemical weapons is enough to stack up where the international community says, you know, it's time to do something about this. Whether or not it results in Assad not using chemical weapons again is certainly going to be open for debate. We'll see whether that happens. But the important thing is that the community has stood up and said, we are not going to tolerate the normalization of the use of chemical weapons. 

BRENNAN: Ambassador, what is the Assad regime take away from this? This is the second time they've been hit by a U.S. strike. 

AMB. JAMES JEFFREY, FORMER U.S. ENVOY TO IRAQ AND TURKEY: I think, Margaret, that the assessment on their part is, the Trump administration is concerned about dealing with the symptoms of the underlying problem, the Syrian civil war. And as Nikki Haley mentioned, Iran's expansion into the vacuum, such as ISIS, such as the chemical weapons, but is not going to do very much against the underlying problem that is destabilizing the whole region. 

BRENNAN: That sounds a lot like some of the criticism of the Obama administration's strategy in Syria, or (INAUDIBLE)?

JEFFREY: It's very similar. Again, it's dealing with the symptoms. The Trump administration a bit more with military force, which is not a bad thing and could have results at least on the chemical weapons front, but it's not, again, tackling what the problem is. And turning to the Arab states and expecting them to stand up, not just to Iran but to Russia, is no way to get out of this mess. 

BRENNAN: Admiral, is there a takeaway that we can learn in terms of how this strike was decided? You know, Aaron David Miller, you know, a long time diplomat, said that the key takeaway is not what happen in Syria but what didn't. That Mattis was able to deescalate. 

WINNEFELD: Right. I think -- 

BRENNAN: Is that your read?

WINNEFELD: It is. And I think that, you know, when you consider that a strike like this really is on the ragged edge of international law. When that happens, it's very important to have a very tight target set and to have a coalition behind you. And that's exactly what happened. And that's one of the reasons why it took a while to get this thing together. It didn't happen a day after the chemical attacks occurred. You not only have to bring the coalition together, you have to very carefully examine the policy implications of what you're about to do. And it was a very, very complex strike that was very well executed. It takes time to get that together. 

BRENNAN: And Russia held its fire. What do you make of that? 

WINNEFELD: I think Russia understands that they're on the wrong side of history here. They're on a roll. 

BRENNAN: Do they? They've been on the right side in terms of who's winning the war for the past seven years. 

WINNEFELD: Well, they're on a roll here. They've illegally annexed the Crimea. They've interfered in our elections. They have tried to assassinate somebody in Great Britain. And now they're backing a monster who is using chemical weapons against his own people. 

So I think it was -- it was -- the writing was on the wall in the Kremlin. Certainly they're going to push back publicly. No question about it. But I think they realized that even if they could have interfered with the strike, which is debatable, I don't think that they were going to do too much. 

BRENNAN: Ambassador, President Trump again, in his announcement of these strikes, reiterated his intent to not stay in Syria. A gesture to bringing those U.S. troops home. But you've said that's actually not a bad decision. What do you think that would mean if you bring those boots who are there, the 2,000 or so, and pull them out?

JEFFREY: Pulling the ground troops out, Margaret, because I think they're doing, at this point, a peripheral mission of dealing with the remnants of ISIS is not a bad idea because Americans are very nervous about this. But Maintaining overall military pressure, no fly zones, action against chemical weapons, essentially what Israel is doing and what Turkey is doing in other parts of Syria would be the building blocks of a real strategy if we could unite everybody behind one. 

BRENNAN: You don't see that as vacating the battlefield to Iran? 

JEFFREY: No, because I think that we would have to continue to provide, as we did with the Iraqi Kurds after 1991, air cover and some kind of liaison capability so that that terrain becomes denied to Assad and the Iranians. 

BRENNAN: And that would require the Trump administration agreeing to protect some of these areas in the south, and they haven't necessarily said they would do that if Assad's forces go into these so-called cease fire zones. 

WINNEFELD: True. And I think it's really important to remember that the actual reason why our forces are there in the first place, under international law, and that is to defeat ISIL, not to overthrow the Assad regime or -- or some other ambition. There are probably peripheral sides to that -- that idea, but legally the reason why we're there is collective self-defense with our partners in the region against ISIL. 

BRENNAN: Ambassador, in the next few weeks we're going to see a lot of potential flash points. You've got the Iraqi elections. You've also got President Trump needing to make a decision on the Iran nuclear deal. What do you think is going to happen here? I mean can you put those pieces together for us? 

JEFFREY: They all circle around a central point, which is, a shift in the geostrategic structure of a critically important region in the Middle East by Iran, enabled by Russia, and helped by its proxies, such as Assad. There's an Iraq aspect to that, a Yemen, and also a nuclear agreement aspect to it. The president wants to pull out of the nuclear agreement. For my money, that's not a good idea. He should focus more on putting together that kind of alliance that can deal across the board with what Iran is doing and then put some military and economic muscle behind what Nikki Haley told you earlier is the Geneva political process. Diplomacy is fine, but as a former diplomat, it doesn't work without pressure. 

BRENNAN: All right, ambassador, admiral, thank you very much for joining us. 

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