In testimony before the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Defense Secretary James Mattis revealed that while the Pentagon doesn’t plan to get involved in Syria’s civil war, American forces will “keep our foot on the neck of ISIS until we suffocate it,” The Washington Free Beacon reported.
While he didn’t reveal specific strategic points during the hearing, he also gave a better idea of how the administration might respond to the latest Syrian chemical attack.
“Both the last administration and this one made very clear that our role in Syria is the defeat of ISIS,” Mattis told the committee.
“We are not going to engage in the civil war itself. Now, you can look back to a year ago when we did fire missiles into Syria unrelated to ISIS, and that was of course the use of chemical weapons. And some things are simply inexcusable, beyond the pale, and in the worst interest of not just the chemical weapons convention, but of civilization itself.”
Mattis went on to say that the strategy was to protect civilians by crushing the Islamic State group.
“It’s got to end, and our strategy remains the same as a year ago. It is to drive this to a UN brokered peace, but at the same time, keep our foot on the neck of ISIS until we suffocate it,” Mattis told the committee.
He also got in a shot at both the Obama administration and Russia, Obama for making the mistake of allowing Russia to verify that Assad dismantled his chemical stockpiles and Russia for being “complicit” in gas attacks waged by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad on his own people.
“The only reason Assad is still in power is because of the Russians regrettable vetos in the (United Nations) and the Russian and Iranian military. So how do we deal with this very complex situation?” Mattis said.
“First of all, we are committed to ending that war through the Geneva process through the UN orchestrated effort. It has been unfulfilled because again Russia has continually blocked the effort.”
Mattis’ testimony came as President Trump and his advisors are weighing how to respond to an alleged chemical attack from Syria and whether it should involve military action.
“Never said when an attack on Syria would take place,” Trump tweeted Thursday after promising retaliation. “Could be very soon or not so soon at all! In any event, the United States, under my Administration, has done a great job of ridding the region of ISIS. Where is our ‘Thank you America?'”
Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all! In any event, the United States, under my Administration, has done a great job of ridding the region of ISIS. Where is our “Thank you America?”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 12, 2018
A somewhat dryer statement from the White House said that they “are continuing to assess intelligence and are engaged in conversations with our partners and allies” and that “no final decision has been made” after the president met with his national security team on the issue later that day.
However, there are two takeaways from Mattis’ testimony. The first is that he’s determined not to get involved in the Syrian civil war even as the administration looks at ways to punish the Assad regime for violating pretty much every international norm by the attack. The second is that he views crushing the remnants of the Islamic State group — already driven out of their strongholds in Raqqa and Mosul — as being the paramount mission.
Mattis has already delivered on a number of his other promises in Syria, particularly eliminating the Islamic State group’s ability to exercise control over any large contiguous portion of the country. If he can deliver on what he outlined before the Armed Services Committee on Thursday, it’s possible that the “Mad Dog” could go down as one of the most effective defense secretaries in our country’s history.
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