Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Thursday railed against the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria, but he stopped short of detailing a potential U.S. response and said no decision on a strike had been reached yet.
Mattis, who made the comments as he testified before a House panel, appeared on Capitol Hill for the first time since a chemical attack in Syria left more than 40 dead and fueled talk of a U.S.-led strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee that the U.S. role in Syria has not changed – defeat the Islamic State and not engage in the country’s seven-year civil war. However, there have been “contrary impulses,” he said, such as last year’s U.S. missile strikes in Syria in response to a chemical attack and now recent discussions for another strike for the same reason.
But for now, President Donald Trump hasn’t reached a decision on a strike despite his tweets to the contrary, Mattis said.
“Some things are simply inexcusable, beyond the pale and in the worst interest of not just the chemical weapons conventions but of civilization itself. So the recognition of that means at times you are going to see contrary impulses,” Mattis told lawmakers. “I’ve never seen refugees as traumatized as coming out of Syria. It’s got to end and our strategy remains the same as a year ago. It is to drive this to a U.N. brokered peace but at the same time keep our foot on the neck of ISIS until we suffocate it.”
Thursday’s hearing, which included Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was slated to discuss the Pentagon’s 2019 budget request, but was heavily focused on Syria. Mattis stopped short of detailing any plans by the United States or its allies to respond to Syria’s April 7 chemical weapons attack, even as Trump on Wednesday warned Russia through Twitter to “get ready” for the U.S. attack on Syria.
On Thursday, Trump followed up that threat by saying it could happen “very soon or not soon at all.” Trump, who was slated to meet with Mattis and other national security advisers later Thursday about Syria, later said the decision could be made “fairly soon.”
“We have not yet made any decision to launch military attacks into Syria,” Mattis told Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii.
Mattis added he didn’t want to speculate about such an attack “not yet in the offing” especially as the president had not yet made a decision and coordination with allies could be needed.
“I don’t want to get into the details of a potential decision by the commander in chief,” Mattis told Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass. “Our strategy is to engage by, with and through allies in all things we do. …I owe confidentiality to our allies due to the sensitive nature of military operations.”
One of his biggest concerns in a potential strike, however, is the death of innocent civilians, Mattis said.
“We are trying to stop the murder of innocent people, how do we keep this from escalating out of control,” he told Tsongas.
Mattis said the United States has yet to confirm details of the attack through international investigators. On Thursday, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said it would have a team of investigators in Syria by Saturday.
Mattis also rejected questions over Trump’s war powers authority to launch strikes in Syria. Mattis said U.S. troops in the country are at risk given the brutal tactics of Assad’s regime.
“We have forces in the field and the use of chemical weapons in Syria is not something that we should assume that ‘well, because he didn’t use them on us this time, he wouldn’t use them on us next time,’” Mattis told Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif. “Protection of our forces, I don’t think we need to wait until they are under chemical attack when the weapons are used in the same theater we are operating in.”
Thursday’s wide-ranging discussion, which touched on budgetary issues early on, could also play into the development of the next National Defense Authorization Act, which directs policy and spending plans for the Defense Department. It also comes in the midst of another rash of deadly military incidents highlighting an ongoing readiness crisis.
Mattis and Dunford opened the hearing by lauding recent efforts to boost the Pentagon’s budget.
“We have made steady progress over the last 14 months,” Mattis said in opening remarks before the House committee.
In February, the Pentagon released a 2019 budget plan seeking a $686.1 billion budget to increase the size and might of the military largely in response to China and Russia’s growing capabilities detailed in the new National Defense Strategy assessing global threats.
After the budget request, Congress reached a two-year bipartisan budget deal lifting spending caps on defense and non-defense spending. The deal allowed defense spending to reach $700 billion for fiscal year 2018, which ends in Sept. 30, and to reach $716 billion for fiscal year 2019, which begins Oct. 1.
“This year’s budget builds on a readiness recovery that we started in (2017) and reinforces our effort to develop the capabilities that we need both today and tomorrow,” Dunford said.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House committee, noted the military is in a better position budget-wise this year.
“We meet under rather different circumstances than last year. Congress and the [Trump] administration have worked together to provide to the military the resources they need to begin to reverse the erosion of our military strength,” Thornberry said. “There is agreement on the funding levels for defense for fiscal year 2019. We know how much we have to work with.”
However, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., ranking Democrat on the committee, warned a soaring deficit is facing the United States as a result of an expanding budget and the military must prepare for tough questions on spending in the future. The U.S. deficit is slated to reach $1 trillion by 2020.
“I hope you are also planning for a lean future,” Smith said. “Going forward in the next decade… understanding our fiscal restraints and dealing with them is going to be a critically important part of making sure the military can do what it can do. We do need to get the budget under control.”
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