Mattis expresses caution on imminent strike against Syria

New York Times  | : Defense Secretary Jim Mattis took pains on Thursday to walk back President Trump’s threats of an imminent strike on Syria, reflecting mounting concerns at the Pentagon that a concerted bombing campaign could escalate into a wider conflict between Russia, Iran and the West.

A Thursday afternoon meeting is scheduled of the president’s top national security advisers, during which Mr. Mattis is expected to urge caution and consideration of a wider strategy. Defense Department officials said that will include trying to get more commitments from allies of help immediately after any strikes.

Speaking before the House Armed Services Committee, Mr. Mattis said that retaliation for the suspected chemical weapons attack had to be balanced against the threat of a wider war.

“We are trying to stop the murder of innocent people. But on a strategic level, it’s how do we keep this from escalating out of control — if you get my drift on that,” Mr. Mattis said.

He added that lawmakers would be notified before any strikes against Syrian weapons facilities and airfields to punish President Bashar al-Assad’s suspected use of chemical weapons over the weekend. The Pentagon alerted lawmakers before an April 2017 cruise missile attack on Shayrat air base following a similar chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians.

Mr. Trump, for his part, said he would make a decision “fairly soon” about a strike.

“We’re looking very, very seriously, very closely at that whole situation and we’ll see what happens, folks, we’ll see what happens,” he told reporters at the White House.

“It’s too bad that the world puts us in a position like that,” he said. “But you know, as I said this morning, we’ve done a great job with ISIS,” Mr. Trump added. “We have just absolutely decimated ISIS. But now we have to make some further decisions. So they’ll be made fairly soon.”

The president said in a Thursday morning tweet that he had never telegraphed the timing of an attack on Syria, and that such a strike “could be very soon or not so soon at all!”

A day earlier, on Wednesday, Mr. Trump warned in a tweet that American missiles “will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart.’” Given those comments, Defense Department officials said it now may be hard to extricate the Trump administration from military action.

The war train appeared to be moving at a fast clip.

On Thursday, President Emmanuel Macron of France cited proof that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in a deadly attack on a suburb of Damascus, the capital.

“We have proof that last week, 10 days ago even, chemical weapons were used — at least chlorine — and that they were used by the regime of Bashar al-Assad,” Mr. Macron said in an interview on TF1, a French television station.

He did not detail what specific proof he was referring to, and said that France was working in close coordination with the Trump administration on the issue.

Britain’s cabinet also was set to meet on Thursday to discuss joining a military operation with the United States, the BBC reported. British submarines were ordered within missile range of Syria, according to The Daily Telegraph.

The Trump administration has not yet confirmed the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime and wants to coordinate its response with allies. But Germany announced that it would not be part of any coordinated military action in Syria, even as Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the importance of Western powers sending a clear, united message that using chemical weapons “is unacceptable.”

“Germany will not take part in possible military action — I want to make clear again that there are no decisions,” Ms. Merkel said after meeting with Lars Lokke Rasmussen of Denmark in Berlin.

Germany refused to take part in the American-led war in Iraq, and in 2011 abstained from a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of military force to protect civilians in Libya.

Heeding Mr. Trump’s warning on Wednesday about an American response, Syria has moved military aircraft to the Russian base near Latakia, and is working to protect important weapons systems. The Russians and Iranians have also been preparing for an American response, and the Trump administration’s delay in acting is giving Syria and its allies more time to prepare.

Mr. Trump has previously belittled American leaders for giving the enemy advance warnings of a strike. But on Thursday, he defended his warning a day earlier and appeared to try to reintroduce the element of surprise over a possible American missile strike.

That underscored what critics have described as a confusing United States policy on involvement in Syria.

When the commander in chief speaks publicly about a potential military action, it creates boundaries and limits on what his subordinates can offer him as options,” said Kevin Ryan, a retired Army brigadier general who is now an associate at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “That’s helpful if his public statements are thoughtful and clear. If those statements are confused and unclear, then they are a hindrance to the outcome.”

“I think the latter is happening right now,” Mr. Ryan said.

The Thursday afternoon meeting at the White House will be crucial. It will include not only Mr. Mattis, but also John R. Bolton, the new national security adviser who favored strikes against Mr. Assad when ordered last year by Mr. Trump — but opposed them in 2013 when considered by President Barack Obama.

“In my view the train has left the station,” said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting and advisory firm. “If Trump now decides not to strike, he’s Obama 2.0 from 2013. That’s the ultimate anathema to President Trump, and I expect him to hit Syria in the next few days.”

Earlier this month, Mr. Trump surprised even his own advisers when he said he wanted the United States to immediately withdraw troops from Syria. His request changed hours later after a National Security Council meeting, and the president decided to keep America’s 2,000 troops in Syria with the goal of bringing them home within a few months.

The suspected chemical weapons attack on Saturday, however, enraged the president, and he promised a decision on an American response this week.

In Paris, Mr. Macron also said France would continue to push for a cease-fire at the United Nations and for humanitarian aid for civilian populations on the ground to avoid what he described as “the terrible images of crimes that we saw, with children and women who were dying by suffocation, because they were subjected to chlorine.”

“We will have decisions to make in good time, when we decide that it is most useful and most efficient,” Mr. Macron said, referring to potential military strikes, and adding that any strikes would target the regime’s chemical infrastructure.

The French have warplanes equipped with cruise missiles in Jordan and in the United Arab Emirates, which are within striking range of Syria.

An estimated 2,000 American troops in Syria have been focused exclusively on fighting the Islamic State. Russian and Iranian forces are also stationed in Syria, ostensibly to support Mr. Assad’s fight against the extremists that he considers a part of the rebellion that has sought to oust him in the country’s seven-year war.

Lawmakers have warned about disjointed messages from the Trump administration that could both embolden Mr. Assad and dispirit allies that have agreed to support the United States.

“We seem to say things and then move on,” Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, said Wednesday on Fox News Radio’s The Brian Kilmeade Show.

“The president has said, though, what he was going to do, I think it is important as a nation that we follow through on those things, we’ve waited too long already,” said Mr. Corker, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is retiring from the Senate at the end of this year.

Nikki R. Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, said “we definitely have enough proof,” of a chemical weapons attack.

“But now we just have to be thoughtful in our action,” Ms. Haley told Andrea Mitchell of NBC News. “So we’ll see what happens. I know that the president’s looking at his options and the national security team is trying to give him as many options as we can and we’ll be thoughtful about it and see what happens.”

Asked if the president’s tweets have been helpful, Ms. Haley demurred. “Well, I think the president communicates the way he communicates,” she said.