Secretary of Defense James Mattis made an implicit threat against Syria recently, hinting at the possibility of a US strike against the country in the event the Assad regime resorts to the use of chemical weapons. The comments were made by Mattis in an informal discussion with reporters at the Pentagon last Friday. “We’re on the record and you all have seen how we reacted to that, so they would be ill-advised to go back to violating the chemical convention,” said Mattis.
The “reaction” that Mattis was referring to was, of course, the Shayrat missile strike that took place in April of last year. The strike was triggered by the alleged use of sarin gas against civilians in Khan Sheikhoun, which resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties. The US intelligence community concluded that aircraft from the Shayrat airfield conducted the chemical weapons attack. The US launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the base from naval vessels deployed in the Mediterranean. The missiles reportedly destroyed 20 percent of Syria’s total military aircraft and left the Shayrat base severely damaged. Importantly, the attack marked the first independent strike by the American military on the Syrian regime – this, despite a strong ambivalence on the part of the administration previously toward direct involvement in the Syrian civil war. It showed that the US has at least one firm red line regarding the conflict.
Mattis emphasized that the US still has no evidence that Syria possesses sarin, and has only received third-party reports on its use. “We’re even more concerned about the possibility of sarin use,” he said. “I don’t have the evidence. What I’m saying is groups on the ground, nongovernmental organizations, fighters on the ground said that sarin has been used. So we are looking for evidence. I don’t have evidence.”
The use of chemical weapons is poised to become a pivotal issue for the US administration regarding Syria. Less than two weeks ago Secretary of State Rex Tillerson publicly condemned the alleged use of weaponized chlorine in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus against rebel forces stationed there. Tillerson blamed Russia for not responsibly overseeing the removal of chemical weapons from the country, a task which Russia had undertaken in 2013.
Tillerson’s statement from late January gives some important insight into Mattis’s comment about “looking for evidence” of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. If the US is able to independently confirm that Assad possesses sarin or other weaponized nerve agents, it may be the impetus for a preemptive policy by the US to target these weapons.
Of course, a major factor to be considered in any potential American plans in Syria is Russia, a government which continues to support Assad both logistically and militarily. The US will be required to, at least minimally, cooperate with the Kremlin if it seeks to act at all against Assad. The choice by the US to inform Russia prior to the attack is evidence of this. Achieving Russian cooperation would be an immense hurdle, and acting unilaterally could potentially risk a confrontation with Russian forces.
The administration has shown it will act with force in response to a Syrian chemical threat. The question is how far they will take that policy, and to what lengths will they go to implement it.