Defense Secretary Mattis Addresses The Situation In Syria Before Congress
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Five days have now passed since what opposition forces say was a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government on its citizens. On Monday, President Trump promised that those responsible would pay a price. And yesterday in a tweet, Trump promised missiles would soon be on their way to Syria. But today, the administration appears to - maybe - be backing off. Trump told reporters that a decision had not yet been made on a course of action. We are joined now by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hey, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello.
KELLY: What's going on? Missiles, no missiles - where are we?
BOWMAN: Well, we don't know yet. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told lawmakers today no decision has been made, and he'll go to the White House again for meetings. And I'm told Mattis has been making calls to his counterparts in other countries. So it sounds like some kind of military action is likely. And you're right. The president tweeted Monday he expected a decision in a day or two. Then he taunted Russia that U.S. missiles would be launched. Then he backed away and...
KELLY: Because Russia fired back and said, we would...
KELLY: ...Shoot down U.S. missiles if you launch them.
BOWMAN: And today, the president said a decision will come, quote, "fairly soon." Now, one problem is the planning - in this planning is trying to prevent all this from escalating into a conflict with Russia, the Syrian government's ally. Mattis referred to that this morning before the House Armed Services Committee, answering a question from Democrat Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts.
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JIM MATTIS: There's a tactical concern, ma'am, that innocent people - we don't add to any civilian deaths and do everything humanly possible to avoid that. We're 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.
NIKI TSONGAS: I get your drift. Thank you. I yield back.
BOWMAN: And the drift...
KELLY: A lot of drift getting there. Yeah.
BOWMAN: The drift, of course, is Russia. And another question, Mary Louise, is whether U.S. allies will take part in any military action. Both France and Britain have indicated supporting that in some way.
KELLY: There are also questions still about the evidence for what exactly transpired in Syria, right? I mean, we're referring to this as a suspected chemical attack.
KELLY: How solid is the evidence?
BOWMAN: Well, there's no official pronouncement about chemical weapons use. The reports we're getting are from opposition groups who are medical professionals on the ground. They say it appears to be a chemical attack judging from the condition of the dead and wounded. And Mattis said this morning he believes it was a chemical attack, but the U.S. is looking for the actual evidence. Now, independent inspectors have not reached the site of the attack. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons - they expect to arrive Saturday, but here's the thing. Even if the organization confirms a chemical attack, it's not permitted to assign blame. Here's Secretary Mattis again.
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MATTIS: We will not know from this investigating team that goes in - if we get them in, if the regime will let them in - we will not know who did it. They can only say that they found evidence or did not. And as each day goes by - as you know, it's a non-persistent gas so it becomes more and more difficult to confirm it.
BOWMAN: And by the way, there was an investigative arm of the organization, and they confirmed Syria was to blame for last year's chemical attack. But that group came to an end last fall. Russia vetoed their continuation in a U.N. Security Council vote.
KELLY: So Tom, is this a factor in forming what may be a delay in any kind of strike? The U.S. doesn't want to launch a retaliatory airstrike until it knows what exactly it's retaliating for, and it sounds like those facts still aren't fully lined up.
BOWMAN: That's right. It could delay it. But remember last year when they launched the attack against that airfield in Syria - President Trump launched dozens of Tomahawk missiles - they still didn't know with certainty whether that was a Syrian attack. So it may not matter. They may launch missiles anyway, and then we'll wait for later for, actually, confirmation of a Syrian attack. But again, they're not going to point fingers at anyone.
KELLY: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, thanks so much.
BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.