Mattis Sends Don't-Mess-With-Us Message to Syria

Defense Secretary James Mattis. AP photo
Defense Secretary James Mattis. AP photo

Don't even think about it, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Monday to the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad on employing chemical weapons.

"The Syrian government would be ill-advised ever again to use chemical weapons," Mattis said, suggesting that the U.S. response would far more intense than the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched last Thursday from the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers Ross and Porter in the eastern Mediterranean.

In a characteristically brief statement, Mattis rejected the claims of Russia, Assad's chief supporter, that many of the T-LAMs, or Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles, missed their targets and the rest caused little damage to the Shayrat airfield north of Damascus.

"The assessment of the Department of Defense is that the strike resulted in the damage or destruction of fuel and ammunition sites, air defense capabilities, and 20 percent of Syria's operational aircraft," he said.

Mattis also suggested that Syrian state TV showing aircraft taking off the day after the attacks was meant to cover up the severe damage that had been inflicted. The Pentagon said on the night of the attacks that the runways deliberately were not targeted since they were easy to repair.

Mattis said, "The Syrian government has lost the ability to refuel or rearm aircraft at Shayrat airfield and, at this point, use of the runway is of idle military interest."

The missile strikes were the latest sign of the more aggressive stance taken by the Pentagon since Mattis took over in January. The U.S. has sent more troops into Iraq and Syria in line with what Mattis has called an "accelerated" campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

In a Pentagon briefing Monday, Army Col. John Thomas said, "We didn't crater the runway. We were not trying to make the airfield long-term inoperable. What we did was degrade the Syrians' ability to carry out chemical weapons attacks from that base in the short term."

Thomas said the strikes destroyed "tens of thousands of gallons of fuel" and "destroyed or rendered inoperable" more than 20 aircraft.

"What we didn't strike were any areas that we believed Russian soldiers were operating out of," Thomas added, "and we didn't strike what we believe was the munitions area where there may have been chemical weapons so we wouldn't create a plume [of toxic gases] or any further damage or harm to personnel."

The U.S. has also begun a protracted air campaign against the Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula group in Yemen, and allowed more leeway for U.S. Africa Command to conduct airstrikes against the Al Shabab group in Somalia.

Over the weekend, Navy Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, canceled port visits to Australia for the carrier Carl Vinson and its support ships and ordered the battle group to waters off Korea to guard against the North Korean threat.

Mattis issued the statement as the G-7 group of nations -- the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Italy -- met in Italy for one of the group's periodic meetings that usually deal with economics and now is focused on a political settlement to the six-year-old Syrian civil war that would eventually lead to Assad stepping down.

British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to abandon his support for Assad and said the group is considering additional sanctions on Russian military commanders.

"He's toxifying the reputation of Russia by his continual association with a guy who has flagrantly poisoned his own people," Johnson said of the bombing of the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun last Thursday allegedly with the nerve agent Sarin. The attack reportedly killed at least 89 people.

Earlier, President Donald Trump placed well done calls to Cmdr. Andria Slough, commander of the Porter, and Cmdr. Russell Caldwell, commander of the Ross. In a readout of the calls, the White House said that Trump "commended the two commanders and their crews for the speed, precision, and effectiveness with which they carried out the operation."

Trump also placed calls to British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and received their support for the U.S. action in Syria and for holding Assad accountable, the White House said.

Immediately after the Tomahawk strikes, Russian officials said that use of the so-called "deconfliction channel" between the U.S. and Russia to ensure the safety of air operations over Syria had been canceled, but they later said that use of the channel had been suspended.

The U.S. then let it be known that Air Force F-22 Raptors, the most advanced air-to-air combat fighters in the U.S. inventory, were flying cover in Syrian airspace.

"We have continued to maintain an air presence, including the use of F-22s, in Syrian airspace in order to protect forces on the ground and keep pressure on ISIS," a spokesman for U.S. Central Command Air Forces said.

A Washington Post-ABC poll Monday showed that Americans supported the strikes last week by 51-40 percent while opposing additional military action to remove Assad. The poll said that 54 percent were against further U.S. military involvement.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was expected to begin talks in Moscow on Tuesday with Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov. There had been speculation that Tillerson would also meet with Putin, but Russian officials said that was no longer a possibility after the missile strikes last week.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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