U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said he believes there was a chemical weapons attack in Syria last Saturday, but admits the U.S. government is still " looking for the actual evidence" to support the claim.
Mattis briefed reporters on the Pentagon Friday an hour after President Donald Trump launched the strike. "It is to drive this to a United Nations brokered peace, but at the same time, keep our foot on the neck of ISIS until we suffocate it", Mattis said during the meeting, the Washington Free Beacon reported.
Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that the administration had practical concerns about collateral damage and getting entangled in a larger conflict.
Mr. Mattis said he is "absolutely confident" that Mr. Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, killing dozens last week in Douma, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus. Some global observers have speculated the attack could have been caused by industrial chlorine, rather than a weaponized nerve agent. Just weeks ago, Trump said he wanted to end USA involvement in Syria and bring American troops home to focus on the homeland.
Explosions are being heard to the east, west and south of Damascus as the US, United Kingdom and France conduct airstrikes in retaliation for an alleged chemical attack by the Syrian government on its own people.
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It was not immediately clear whether Trump meant the allied military operation would extend beyond an initial nighttime round of missile strikes.
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On Thursday, during a public hearing, Mattis told members of Congress that the U.S. is "not going to engage in the civil war itself", and it remains committed to the United Nations-backed negotiations in Geneva to end the war. "But at the same time, it was a heavy strike". But Mattis cautioned that even if they arrived as soon as possible, they wouldn't be able to attribute the attack to anyone.
"Trump calls the two countries those "most responsible for supporting, equipping and financing the criminal Assad regime". He said Friday that he saw that evidence only on Thursday.
"We confined it to the chemical weapons type targets".
"We are trying to stop the murder of innocent people. We are not ruling out sarin right now", Mattis said.
"I'm not ready to speculate that that would happen", Mattis replied.
Macron said France has proof that the Syrian government launched chlorine gas attacks and said France would not tolerate "regimes that think everything is permitted".
Mattis noted that previous year, US forces conducted a "unilateral strike on a single site", whereas he said these strikes "will result in a long term degradation to the Syrians' capability to research, develop, and employ biological and chemical weapons".
After Trump met with the National Security Council Thursday afternoon, the White House said he would be speaking with both allies and had not yet reached a decision on how to respond.