The Trump administration on Thursday signaled it would take a more deliberate approach toward U.S. action in Syria, a slowing of what had seemed a quick drive for airstrikes in retaliation for the suspected use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians.
President Trump said an attack could occur “very soon or not so soon,” and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis also raised caution flags, noting the risks of an escalating military confrontation.
“Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Trump’s comments came a day after he inflamed tensions over the suspected chemical attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime when he said on Twitter that U.S. airstrikes “will be coming” and warned Syrian ally Russia against trying to shoot down the U.S. missiles.
“Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ ” Trump wrote.
That taunt took allies and administration officials by surprise, and alarmed some military officials who are advocating a deliberate approach that draws in allies and presents a clear case for why U.S. action is warranted, according to U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Mattis seemed to acknowledge the concerns over a quick airstrike in an appearance before a congressional committee Thursday. With Russia and Iran heavily invested in Assad’s survival, Mattis highlighted the risk of military action against the Syrian government.
“We’re 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,” the retired four-star Marine general told the House Armed Services Committee hours before meeting with the president.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said late Thursday that no final decisions had been made on Syria following a meeting between Trump and his national security team.
“We are continuing to assess intelligence and are engaged in conversations with our partners and allies,” Sanders said.
Missile strikes have appeared likely since the deaths of families, including children, over the weekend from what the United States has called a poison gas attack on the rebel-held town of Douma, near Damascus, by the Assad regime.
Trump’s options include the sort of limited response he ordered last year after another suspected use of chemical weapons by Assad or a heavier assault designed to show the Syrian leader that he will pay a heavy cost for using such weapons again, said one official familiar with military and diplomatic discussions on Syria.
Trump faces the challenge of finding a response that will appear tough while not provoking a response that would further embroil the United States in the Syrian civil war. Top Pentagon brass have argued that quick military action may have unintended consequences, including with Russia, according to a senior U.S. official.
There is also concern that a coordinated response among the United States, France and Britain is not yet set. But French President Emmanuel Macron appeared to take a step Thursday toward joining the United States in a forthcoming attack, claiming that France has “proof” of a chemical attack and insisting that anyone who commits such abuses be held to account.
Macron’s comments were widely interpreted as an argument directed at critics worried about a reprise of France’s participation in the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, which helped bring down ruler Moammar Gaddafi but threw Libya into deeper chaos.
On Monday, Trump said a decision on a U.S. response to the weekend deaths of more than 40 civilians would come within 48 hours. That time frame elapsed with no explanation from the White House.
“Now we have to make some further decisions,” Trump said during a brief appearance before reporters at the White House on Thursday afternoon. “They’ll be made fairly soon.”
“We’ll see what happens,” Trump said at the White House. “We’re obviously looking at that very closely. . . . It’s too bad that the world puts us in a position like that.”
The debate about when, or whether, to strike in Syria follows Trump’s surprise promise this month to withdraw U.S. forces from the country “very soon.” Other nations should step in, Trump said. Like his remarks about the timing of strikes, that comment startled and alarmed military officials who argued that the U.S. counterterrorism mission has not run its course.
Trump’s initial tweet Thursday about timing included a complaint about the military burden shouldered by the United States.
“In any event, the United States, under my Administration, has done a great job of ridding the region of ISIS,” Trump wrote, referring to the Islamic State terrorist group. “Where is our ‘Thank you America?’ ”
It also conflated international outrage over the alleged use of chemical weapons with the counterterrorism mission in Syria, a fight for which the United States, Russia and Assad are on the same side.
Mattis told the House committee Thursday that the United States had yet to obtain hard evidence linked to the chemical attack.
“I believe there was a chemical attack, and we’re looking for the actual evidence,” he said.
In a statement, Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Defense Department spokesman, said the victims of the Douma attack had symptoms “reported by credible medical professionals and visible in social media photos and video [that] are consistent with an asphyxiation agent and of a nerve agent of some type.”
Mattis said he hoped that experts from the international Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) would soon be granted access to the affected areas but noted that inspectors would not have the ability to determine responsibility for the attack.
International legitimacy for a U.S. or allied strike would rest largely on such findings. Syria and Russia deny that Assad’s forces deployed chemical agents. Russia argued at the United Nations this week that if such weapons were used, it was in an attack carried out by anti-Assad rebels.
The Netherlands-based OPCW said Thursday that a fact-finding mission is en route to Syria and will start investigating the suspected chemical attack Saturday. The organization also has announced findings linking Russia to a suspected nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in Britain last month.
Asked about the legal basis for potential action in Syria, Mattis suggested it could be framed as a self-defense strike given the proximity of a force of about 2,000 U.S. troops.
“The use of chemical weapons in Syria is not something we should assume . . . ‘Well, because he didn’t use them on us this time, he wouldn’t use them on us next time,’ ” he said.
British Prime Minister Theresa May’s office said she spoke with Trump on Thursday.
“They agreed it was vital that the use of chemical weapons did not go unchallenged, and on the need to deter the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime,” May’s office said in a statement. “They agreed to keep working closely together on the international response.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday that her country would not join a military operation in Syria.
Critics called Trump a hypocrite for his tweets Wednesday, which previewed military action. Before and during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump called President Barack Obama foolish and weak for announcing strategy or deadlines for military action.
In April 2017, as he contemplated a strike in Syria, Trump said, “One of the things I think you’ve noticed about me is: Militarily, I don’t like to say where I’m going and what I’m doing.”
Asked during his weekly news conference if he thought Trump was “dithering,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) defended the president, saying he was right to consult with allies about a unified response.
“I think you’re wrong to suggest he’s dithering,” Ryan said. “He’s not dithering.”
Ryan said that he thinks “it’s important for us to help lead the international community to make sure people are held accountable for these mass atrocities.”
James McAuley in Paris and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.