Defense Secretary Jim Mattis took pains on Thursday to walk back President Trump’s threats of an imminent strike on Syria, reflecting mounting concerns at the Pentagon that a concerted bombing campaign could escalate into a wider conflict between Russia, Iran and the West.
A Thursday afternoon meeting is scheduled of the president’s top national security advisers, during which Mr. Mattis is expected to urge caution and consideration of a wider strategy. Defense Department officials said that will include trying to get more commitments from allies of help immediately after any strikes.
Speaking before the House Armed Services Committee, Mr. Mattis said that retaliation for the suspected chemical weapons attack had to be balanced against the threat of a wider war.
“We are trying to stop the murder of innocent people. But on a strategic level, it’s how do we keep this from escalating out of control — if you get my drift on that,” Mr. Mattis said.
He added that lawmakers would be notified before any strikes against Syrian weapons facilities and airfields to punish President Bashar al-Assad’s suspected use of chemical weapons over the weekend. The Pentagon alerted lawmakers before an April 2017 cruise missile attack on Shayrat air base following a similar chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians.
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Trump, for his part, said he would make a decision “fairly soon” about a strike. “We’re looking very, very seriously, very closely at that whole situation and we’ll see what happens, folks, we’ll see what happens,” he told reporters at the White House.
The president said in a Thursday morning tweet that he had never telegraphed the timing of an attack on Syria, and that such a strike “could be very soon or not so soon at all!”
On Thursday, President Emmanuel Macron of France cited proof that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in a deadly attack on a suburb of Damascus, the capital.
“We have proof that last week, 10 days ago even, chemical weapons were used — at least chlorine — and that they were used by the regime of Bashar al-Assad,” Macron said in an interview on TF1, a French television station.
He did not detail what specific proof he was referring to, and said that France was working in close coordination with the Trump administration on the issue.
Britain’s cabinet also was set to meet on Thursday to discuss joining a military operation with the United States, the BBC reported. British submarines were ordered within missile range of Syria, according to The Daily Telegraph.
The Trump administration has not yet confirmed the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime and wants to coordinate its response with allies. But Germany announced that it would not be part of any coordinated military action in Syria, even as Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the importance of Western powers sending a clear, united message that using chemical weapons “is unacceptable.”
“Germany will not take part in possible military action — I want to make clear again that there are no decisions,” Ms. Merkel said after meeting with Lars Lokke Rasmussen of Denmark in Berlin.
Germany refused to take part in the American-led war in Iraq, and in 2011 abstained from a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of military force to protect civilians in Libya.
Heeding Mr. Trump’s warning on Wednesday about an American response, Syria has moved military aircraft to the Russian base near Latakia, and is working to protect important weapons systems. The Russians and Iranians have also been preparing for an American response.
An estimated 2,000 American troops in Syria have been focused exclusively on fighting the ISIS. Russian and Iranian forces are also stationed in Syria, ostensibly to support Assad’s fight against the extremists.
Nikki R. Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, said “we definitely have enough proof,” of a chemical weapons attack.
“But now we just have to be thoughtful in our action,” Ms. Haley told Andrea Mitchell of NBC News. “So we’ll see what happens. I know that the president’s looking at his options and the national security team is trying to give him as many options as we can and we’ll be thoughtful about it and see what happens.”