The National Security Council discussed options with the president for responding to the attack, but the administration was still syncing up with allies Thursday evening.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told lawmakers he believes a chemical weapons attack occurred in Syria last weekend, but the Trump administration was still assessing conclusive evidence and deciding how to respond, including, whether to attack Syria with U.S. military strikes,as of Thursday.
The world has been on high-alert for a punitive U.S. missile strike on Syria, and Trump said in a tweet on Wednesday that Russia should “get ready,” missiles “will be coming.” The president appeared to soften that threat on Thursday morning, when he said in a new tweet that an attack “could be very soon or not so soon at all,” and “we’ll see what happens.”
Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that the administration had practical concerns about collateral damage and getting entangled in a larger conflict. But he repeatedly emphasized that the use of chemical weapons in last weekend’s attack that killed at least 42 people could not go unanswered. Some international observers have speculated the attack could have been caused by industrial chlorine, rather than a weaponized nerve agent. By Thursday afternoon, NBC News reported the U.S. had confirmed the presence of a nerve agent and chlorine gas in blood and urine samples of the attack victims.
“I believe there was a chemical attack,” Mattis said,in a wide-ranging hearing that was originally scheduled for members to discuss the Pentagon’s 2019 budget request. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders also said on Wednesday the intelligence community was still assessing the evidence but said, “the President holds Syria and Russia responsible for this chemical weapons attack.”
President Donald Trump, in a Thursday morning meeting with governors and members of Congress at the White House, said, “We're looking very, very seriously, very closely at that whole situation. And we'll see what happens, folks. We'll see what happens. It's too bad that the world puts us in a position like that…. But now we have to make some further decisions, so they'll be made fairly soon.”
“We’re looking for the actual evidence,” said Mattis, on Capitol Hill at the same time, noting that United Nations inspectors would arrive in the country “probably by the end of the week.” Those inspectors are working against the clock: The gases used dissipate over time, making it harder to confirm as days go by. But Mattis cautioned that even if they arrived as soon as possible, they wouldn’t be able to attribute the attack to anyone.
“We will not know, if this investigating team that goes in — if we get them in, if the regime will let them in — we will not know who did it,” he said. “They can only say they found evidence or did not.”
Mattis told lawmakers there are “a lot of ways to respond to the violation of the chemical weapons convention — diplomatically, economically, militarily.”
Mattis listed two concerns about directly attacking Assad regime targets: “There’s a tactical concern of innocent civilians — that we don’t add to any civilian deaths … We’re trying to stop the murder of innocent people,” he told Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Calif. “On a strategic level, it’s: how do we keep this from escalating out of control, if you get my drift on that.”
“I get your drift,” she replied.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday morning his country had proof Bashar al-Assad’s regime had carried out the attack. Other allies have been more cautious, but the U.K. government said Thursday the international community must “take action” against Syria to deter future use of chemical weapons.
After Trump met with the National Security Council Thursday afternoon, the White House said he would be speaking with both allies and had not yet reached a decision on how to respond.