Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis hinted that the US may strike Syria again over new reports of chemical weapons

source
Reuters

  • The Trump administration is reportedly warning Syria that if reports of chemical weapon attacks continue, it will strike like it did in April.
  • Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been linked to multiple chemical weapons attacks, and the US suspects Russia is enabling it.
  • It will be hard for the US to prove Syria used the chemical weapons due to a change in the Assad regime’s tactics, but it may look to send a message with a strike nonetheless.

President Donald Trump’s administration is warning Syria that further chemical attacks will be met with a strike like the salvo of 59 cruise missiles that lit up a Syrian air base in April.

Syria would be “ill-advised to go back to violating the chemical convention,” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said on Friday, the Washington Examiner notes.

Two senior administration officials warned that the US could take military action against Syria following a new rash of reports of chemical weapons used against civilians supposedly carried out by the country’s government, The Cipher Brief reported.

But even bigger than another strike on Syria – which, while eye-catching, changed little geopolitically – the officials said the US was on to Syria’s backer and enabler: Russia.

“They’re not trying to fool us. They know what we know,” one of the officials said, meaning that Russia isn’t even trying to hide its role in the chemical attacks. “They’re trying to fool you.”

The official was referring to Russia’s media offensive to deny its connection to chemical weapons use in Syria.

An agreement between the US in Russia in 2013 bound Moscow to remove all chemical weapons from Syria, but as repeated instances of chemical weapons attacks show, that was simply not the case.

The officials’ statements to The Cipher Brief follow Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statements that Russia “bears responsibility” for the chemical warfare still unfolding in Syria.

Easier said than done

A Civil Defence member carries a damaged canister in Ibleen village from what activists said was a chlorine gas attack, on Kansafra, Ibleen and Josef villages, Idlib countryside May 3, 2015.

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A Civil Defence member carries a damaged canister in Ibleen village from what activists said was a chlorine gas attack, on Kansafra, Ibleen and Josef villages, Idlib countryside May 3, 2015.
source
REUTERS/Abed Kontar

But while the Trump administration has resolved to punish Syria’s use of chemical weapons with military force, a change in tactics from Damascus may complicate things. Instead of the sarin gas used in April, which requires sophisticated assembly and deployment by an air force, the recent attacks have used chlorine gas, which can simply be dumped out of a truck.

Former US ambassador to Turkey and Washington Institute fellow James Jeffrey told BI that there have been persistent reports of chlorine attacks in Syria since 2013, and it’s not as clearly banned by international agreements as sarin.

Additionally, Jeffrey pointed out that the attacks have not been independently verified by an international agency, meaning it would be harder to build an international consensus around a strike.

“We are even more concerned about the possibility of sarin use,” said Mattis. “We are looking for the evidence.”

But with Russian and Iranian influence growing in Syria and posing a direct threat to US foreign policy interests, it’s possible that the Trump administration may look to make a statement that it’s not buying Russia’s excuses anymore.