- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The precision U.S. strike against a Syrian airbase last week was a compromise effort by President Trump’s national security team to punish President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons, while making sure Washington does not get sucked deeper into the country’s six-year civil war, Defense Secretary James Mattis said Tuesday.

In his first official press conference since taking the helm at the Pentagon, Mr. Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon that the decision to strike the al Shayrat airbase in western Syria “was in no way a harbinger of a change in our campaign” against Islamic State in the country.

His comments fall in line with the rhetoric coming from the White House that the Syrian strike was not the opening salvo in a new front in the Syrian war.

The U.S. strike, in which two American destroyers fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on the airbase, was strictly a retaliatory strike against the Assad regime’s chemical attack against anti-government forces in northern Syria’s Idlib province. Critics inside and outside of Washington said the strike, the first ever against Mr. Assad’s forces, would draw the U.S. deeper into the country’s civil conflict.

Mr. Mattis said Tuesday the naval strike was the only course of action U.S. commanders could take to hold the regime accountable for its actions in Idlib, while maintaining a safe distance from Assad’s ongoing campaign against rebel forces.

“We know we could not stand passive on this,” he said, referring to the use of sarin nerve gas in Idlib. But Mr. Mattis and other military strategists inside the administration knew they could not go “full bore” at Assad and the conflict his regime is waging in Syria, Mr. Mattis added.

‘We had to make a very, very clear statement” to the Assad regime and its allies in Russia and Iran that use of chemical weapons would not be tolerated by the U.S. or its international allies, the Pentagon chief said.

When asked whether the strikes sent the right message to the Assad regime over its use of chemical weapons, Mr. Mattis replied, “I trust he regrets it now.”

With that message sent, Mr. Mattis and American commanders in charge of the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State, or ISIS or ISIL, is proceeding as planned.

“Right now in Syria, and the military campaign is focused on accomplishing that, is breaking ISIS, destroying ISIS in Syria,” Mr. Mattis said. “This was a separate issue that arose in the midst of that campaign. We addressed that militarily [and] the rest of the campaign stays on track, exactly as it was before Assad’s violation.”

The details of that plan, articulated in a White House-mandated 30 day review of the Islamic State war plan, is still in “skeleton form,” the Pentagon chief said, adding the Defense Department and other national security agencies are still fleshing out the details of the plan.

That said, the status of the Trump war plan for the Islamic State “is proceeding the way we expected it to,” said U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel, who also appeared alongside Mr. Mattis during Tuesday’s briefing.

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