There is “no doubt” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is behind a last week’s chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Defense Secretary James Mattis said Tuesday.
The top U.S. military leader claimed the Syrian regime’s “inexplicably ruthless murders” violated a United Nations convention dating to before World War II, and issued a warning against the further use of chemical weapons.
“The United States will not passively stand by while Assad blithely ignores international law and employs chemical weapons he had declared destroyed,” Mattis said, in his first formal Pentagon briefing since taking office in January.
The statements, Mattis’ first live remarks since the U.S. military cruise missiles strike on Apr. 6, capped a daylong media blitz by Trump administration national security officials making their case for launching the attack, limiting it to part of one airfield, warning Syria and Russia against additional chemical weapons use, and assuring them the U.S. military in Syria remains focused on job one: defeating the Islamic State.
“Last Tuesday on the 4th of April, the Syrian regime attacked its own people using chemical weapons,” Mattis said. “I have personally reviewed the intelligence, and there is no doubt the Syrian regime is responsible for the decision to attack and for the attack itself.”
Officials took pains to temper how much blame to assign Russia for the sarin gas attack. “The facts are on our side,” said White House press secretary Sean Spicer at Tuesday’s White House press briefing. “The actions of Syria are reprehensible. And I think that Russia has been party to several international agreements that Syria is not holding up to. In fact that — that Russia needs to hold themselves up to.”
But he and other officials stopped short of aligning Russia directly to the attack. “There's no consensus within the intelligence community that there was involvement,” Spicer said.
He did lay pressure on Russia to pull their support for Assad. “This is Russia putting their name on the line. So it's not a question of how long that alliance has lasted, but at what point do they recognize that they are now getting on the wrong side of history in a really bad way, really quickly.”
Spicer repeated the White House’s recent shift to call for Assad’s eventual removal from power in post-war Syria. “There's no question that you can't have a peaceful Syria with Assad in charge. I don't see how that ever works. So, no, I don't see a future Syria that has Assad al-Ashar [sic] as the leader of that government.”
Despite calling for Assad’s removal and a direct cruise missile strike on Syrian government forces, Mattis and Gen. Joseph Votel, who commands all troops in the area known as U.S. Central Command, said the administration’s one-off response did not change America’s battle plans against ISIS. Mattis declined to say how the administration would respond to any future Syrian use of barrel bombs, and Votel declined to reveal if the U.S. knew the location or movements of additional Syrian chemical weapons. “I'm not going to speculate on what we know or don't know here but again I remain very confident in our forces and our ability to respond when we're asked to do things,” Votel said.
“The goal right now in Syria...is breaking ISIS,” Mattis said. Assad’s chemical weapon attack “was a separate issue that arose in the midst of that campaign,” Mattis said, “but the rest of the campaign stays on track, exactly as it was before Assad's violation.”
That counter-ISIS campaign, however, is the same one leftover from President Barack Obama. Trump ordered a new counter-ISIS war plan from the Pentagon but has yet to receive one. Mattis explained on Tuesday a new counter-ISIS plan would not be rushed.
“Well, the counter-ISIL plan has been put in skeleton form; it's being fleshed out now,” he said. “This has got to be done in a methodical way, where we look at each element of it. A couple weeks ago, Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson had 60, 68 nations in town with his counterparts as the fellow foreign ministers. And they are working on the stabilization efforts in Syria; this is not the United States working alone. It's a very, very complex security situation and it’s one that we're going to have to address in a very methodical manner.”
“It's not something you can simply add water to a dehydrated plant and it's suddenly a full-fledged plan,” Mattis said. “This is hard work and it's going to take time.”
Votel defended the current U.S. operational plan he commands and it’s pace of success. “The campaign plan remains where we thought that it would be at this particular point. We're obviously engaged in very, very difficult fighting in both Mosul and around the Raqqa area, which is where we expected to be at this time,” he said. “We anticipate that the fighting would be difficult at this particular part and I think that's exactly what we're seeing.”
“So again, I certainly won't put a timeline on this,” Votel said. “It'll ultimately prove us to be wrong but I think this is proceeding about the way that we expected it would, at this point.”