US President Donald Trump on Thursday put off a final decision on possible military strikes against Syria after tweeting earlier that they could happen “very soon or not so soon at all.” The White House said he would consult further with allies.
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned such an attack carried the risk of spinning out of control, suggesting caution ahead of a decision on how to respond to an attack against civilians last weekend that US officials are increasingly certain involved the use of banned chemical weapons. British officials said up to 75 people were killed.
The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said in a brief statement after Trump met with Mattis and other members of his National Security Council: “No final decision has been made. We are continuing to assess intelligence and are engaged in conversations with our partners and allies.”
Mattis said options would be discussed with Trump at a meeting of his National Security Council on Thursday afternoon. That meant airstrikes, possibly in tandem with France and other allies that have expressed outrage at the alleged Syrian chemical attack, could be launched within hours of a presidential decision.
The US, France and Britain have been in extensive consultations about launching a military strike as early as the end of this week, US officials have said. A joint military operation, possibly with France rather than the US in the lead, could send a message of international unity about enforcing the prohibitions on chemical weapons.
Mattis said that although the United States has no hard proof, he believes the Syrian government was responsible for Saturday’s attack. Initial reports indicated the use of chlorine gas, possibly in addition to the nerve agent Sarin. Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, told NBC News on Thursday the administration has “enough proof” of the chemical attack but was still considering its response.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in the Netherlands, announced it was sending a fact-finding team to the site of the attack outside Damascus, and it was due to arrive Saturday. It was not clear whether the presence of the investigators could affect the timing of any US military action.
Russian lawmakers have warned the United States that Moscow would view an airstrike on Syria as a war crime and that it could trigger a direct U.S-Russian military clash. Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon said any missiles fired at Syria would be shot down and the launching sites targeted — a stark warning of a potential major confrontation.
At the House hearing, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, disputed Trump’s legal authority to act without congressional authority and suggested a US strike would lead to war with Russia.
“I’m not ready to speculate that that would happen,” Mattis said.Photos recovered from liberated Douma show how militants filmed propaganda fakes