Mattis says decision on Syria not yet made despite Trump comments

Mattis says decision on Syria not yet made despite Trump comments
© Greg Nash

Defense Secretary James Mattis on Thursday tried to tamp down President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Shutdown negotiations continue after White House immigration proposal Rove warns Senate GOP: Don't put only focus on base Ann Coulter blasts Trump shutdown compromise: ‘We voted for Trump and got Jeb!’ MORE’s recent threats of a strike on Syria, insisting the commander in chief had not yet decided on a response. 

Mattis acknowledged Trump’s tweet from a day earlier, which warned Russia that U.S. missiles fired at Syria “will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’”

Speaking before the House Armed Services Committee, Mattis indicated the administration was weighing a response that would both prevent an escalation in the region and send a strong message to Syrian President Bashar Assad for an alleged chemical weapons attack carried out over the weekend.

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“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,” Mattis told lawmakers.

“When the president of the United States says these missiles will be coming, that sounds to me and to the rest of the world, like a decision,” Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) pressed.

Mattis would only note that “today our president did say that he’s not made a decision.”

The retired four-star general added that the Pentagon would notify Congress before any planned strike on Syria.

“There will be notification to leadership, of course, prior to the attack. But we'll give a full report to the Congress itself, probably, as rapidly as possible,” he said.

The Defense Department last April alerted lawmakers before launching 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base in response to a similar chemical weapons attack that killed more than 70 Syrian civilians.

Trump earlier Thursday said he would make a decision on Syria “fairly soon.”

“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.

Mattis said that after the hearing he would attend an afternoon meeting of the president’s National Security Council (NSC), where he and other advisers “will take forward the various options to the president.”

A strike on Syria seemed imminent with the recent comments from British and French leaders.

British Prime Minister Theresa May's Cabinet on Thursday pledged to "take action" in response to the chemical attack, noting in a statement that members agreed that "it was vital that the use of chemical weapons did not go unchallenged."

French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, said his country has proof “chemical weapons were used — at least chlorine — and that they were used by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.”

But the White House released a statement following the NSC meeting that appeared to confirm Mattis's earlier comments.

"President Trump just finished a meeting with his National Security team to discuss the situation in Syria. No final decision has been made. We are continuing to asses intelligence and are engaged in conversations with our partners and allies. The President will speak with President Macron and Prime Minister May this evening," said press secretary Sarah Huckabeee Sanders.