Mattis: Syria ‘Took the Warning’ from White House on Chemical Weapons ‘Seriously’

Mattis's visit, his second to the region, is the latest in a string of appearances by top US officials who have scrambled to reassure partners about US commitments
AFP SAUL LOEB

Secretary of Defense James Mattis, en route to a NATO meeting in Brussels on Wednesday, told reporters that Syria appears to have backed away from conducting a chemical weapons attack after President Donald Trump’s warning.

“It appears that they took the warning seriously. They didn’t do it,” Mattis said.

Asked if Syrian President Bashar Assad has called off all WMD strikes, Mattis replied, “I think you better ask Assad about that.”

He stated that Assad’s chemical weapons program “goes far beyond one airfield,” referring to the Sharyat airbase targeted by American cruise missiles after a chemical weapons attack, but he did not elaborate on U.S. intelligence about the new WMD strike, or why the Pentagon is confident that the strike has been called off.

The White House statement on Monday warned Assad that if he “conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price.”

According to the New York Times, military officials were “caught off guard by Monday night’s White House statement,” and were not willing to discuss their level of confidence about an impending Syrian chemical weapons strike with the press.

However, Pentagon spokesmen said on Tuesday there was evidence of preparation for a chemical attack at the Sharyat airbase. The NYT’s official sources said other details of the threat assessment were kept secret due to information security concerns.

Interestingly, despite reporting that military commanders were surprised by the White House warning to Syria, the very same Times piece states that Mattis was aware of the activity at Sharyat and ranking Democrat Adam Schiff of the House Intelligence Committee was briefed before the statement was issued. Schiff said he thought the warning was “worthwhile” if it dissuaded further chemical attacks.

The Washington Post’s account of the White House warning portrays it as a swift response, coordinated across multiple agencies, to solid intelligence from an unspecified outside source. According to this report, there was little dissent from top officials–including Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster– hat the warning was justified and necessary, but lower level officials were surprised because they were not included in the fast-moving high-level discussions.

The White House stated on Tuesday that no one relevant to these discussions was deliberately kept out of the loop, and “anonymous leaks to the contrary are false.”

As for Assad, the New York Times interpreted his visit to a Russian airbase in western Syria on Tuesday as a gesture of contempt for Trump’s warning. The Syrian government officially rejected American allegations that it was preparing another chemical attack, as did Syria’s patrons in Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday the Trump administration’s “threats to Syria’s legitimate leaders are unacceptable.”

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