Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reportedly pushed for the White House to get congressional approval before striking Syria last week, but was overruled by President Donald Trump, who didn’t want to wait for lawmakers to debate the issue.
In meetings leading up to the operation, the Pentagon chief sought to persuade Trump that he should get buy-in from lawmakers as a show of public support for striking Syria, The New York Times reported Tuesday.
Trump, who had already issued a series of threats promising a retaliatory strike, instead decided to act unilaterally, in part because he preferred a quick and dramatic response, according to administration officials who spoke with TheNYT.
Differences over congressional approval were part of a broader debate between Trump and Mattis over how to respond to the suspected chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime in Douma on April 7. Trump had pressed his national security aides to consider strikes on Russian and Iranian targets in Syria, which would make good on his threat that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s backers would also “pay a big price” for the chemical attack.
Mattis, on the other hand, warned that hitting Russian and Iranian assets would draw the U.S. deeper into the Syrian war, an outcome Trump has sought to avoid. The Pentagon chief was also concerned about launching massive strikes without definitive evidence that Assad had ordered the use of poison gas in Douma.
Though he was overruled on the issue of lawmaker approval, Mattis ultimately prevailed in convincing Trump that a limited strike was the appropriate response, reports the Wall Street Journal. The combined operation with Britain and France struck three targets — a scientific research center, chemical weapons storage facility, and a chemical equipment storage facility — none of which housed Russian troops or equipment. Nor did the strikes hit Syrian military units that thought to be responsible for carrying out the April 7 attack.
Mattis described the operation as a “one-time shot” that was meant to deter the Syrian regime from further use of chemical weapons. His comments reflected his cautious, narrow view of U.S. military’s role in Syria: destroying the Islamic State and avoiding entanglement in the country’s seven-year civil war.
The Trump administration has veered between sharply different plans for a U.S. presence in Syria. Just days before the suspected chemical attack, Trump himself said he wanted the 2,000 U.S. troops currently deployed there to come home “very soon.”
Since then, top administration officials, including U.S. envoy to the United Nations Nikki Haley, have said American troops will remain in Syria until the U.S. defeats ISIS, ensures Assad can no longer use chemical weapons, and establishes a vantage point to watch Iran.
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