Mattis Mum on Whether Trump 'Telegraphing' US Response in Syria

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis welcomes Netherlands Minister of Defense Ank Bijleveld to the Pentagon in Washington, Wednesday, April 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis welcomes Netherlands Minister of Defense Ank Bijleveld to the Pentagon in Washington, Wednesday, April 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was mum Wednesday on whether he thought President Donald Trump was "telegraphing" the U.S. military response to the suspected chemical attack east of Damascus by the Syrian regime.

Mattis also said the U.S. was assessing with allies the intelligence on the type of agent that may have been used. "We're still working on this," he said.

Responding to shouted questions at a Pentagon meeting with visiting Netherlands Defense Minister Ank Bijleveld, Mattis said only "thank you very much" when asked "are you concerned about telegraphing our military moves in Syria?"

Mattis added that "We stand ready to provide military options if they're appropriate, as the president determined" to the suspected chemical attack on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma that reportedly killed at least 40 and sickened more than 500.

Earlier Wednesday, Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford were seen entering the White House and departing about two hours later after discussions on the way forward against the Russian-backed regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In a series of Tweets Wednesday, Trump appeared to disclose that the U.S. response would be a missile attack similar to the one last April, when two Navy destroyers launched 59 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs) against a Syrian airfield after an attack in northwestern Syria with the suspected nerve agent sarin.

In one Tweet, Trump said "Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and "smart!" You shouldn't be partners with a Gas Killing Animal [Assad] who kills his people and enjoys it!"

At a White House briefing, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump was "not at all" Tweeting or making statements that would give away U.S. plans and potentially put lives at risk.

She said that missiles strikes were "certainly one option, but that doesn't mean it's the only option or the only thing that the President may or may not do."

During the campaign, Trump charged that the Obama administration repeatedly had "telegraphed" U.S. military plans.

"I have often said that General [Douglas] MacArthur and General [George] Patton would be in a state of shock if they were alive today to see the way President Obama and Hillary Clinton try to recklessly announce their every move before it happens -- like they did in Iraq -- so that the enemy can prepare and adapt," Trump said in an August 2016 speech on terrorism.

The attack in Douma and the apparent U.S. planning for a military response have set the region on edge. Syrian troops reportedly were leaving bases to avoid attack and Eurocontrol, the European air traffic control agency, warned flights of potential missile strikes in the eastern Mediterranean.

"'Due to the possible launch of air strikes in Syria with air-to-ground and/or cruise missiles within the next 72 hours, and the possibility of intermittent disruption of radio navigation equipment, due consideration needs to be taken when planning flight operations in the eastern Mediterranean/Nicosia FIR area [air traffic control in Cyprus]," Eurocontrol said Wednesday, according to CNBC.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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