The secretary and Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, updated Pentagon reporters on the April 6 U.S. strike that targeted Syria’s Shayrat airfield, equipment and chemical weapons.
“In response to the attack, our government began a deliberate process, led by the National Security Council, to recommend diplomatic and military options to the president,” Mattis said.
Meetings were conducted over several days, and he spoke to some U.S. allies, the secretary said.
“The National Security Council considered the near-century-old international prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, the Syrian regime’s repeated violations of that international law, and the inexplicably ruthless murders the regime had committed,” Mattis said of the decision-making process.
It was determined a measured military response “could best deter the regime from doing this again,” he said, adding that the Defense Department examined how best to avoid civilian casualties and that its actions were successful. Further, he added, because DoD was aware of Russian presence at the airfield, appropriate actions were taken to make sure Russians were not injured in the attack.
Based on the considerations Mattis outlined, President Donald J. Trump directed military action consistent with U.S. vital national interests to deter the use of chemical weapons, the secretary said.
“This military action demonstrates the United States will not passively stand by while [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] blithely ignores international law and employs chemical weapons he had declared destroyed,” Mattis said.
ISIS Defeat Priority
The strikes on Syrian assets following its chemical attack on its people is a separate operation from the campaign to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Mattis told reporters, and he pointed out that ISIS remains the United States’ priority.
“Our military policy in Syria has not changed,” the secretary said. “Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS. ISIS represents a clear and present danger, an immediate threat to Europe, and ultimately, a threat to the United States homeland.”
When the strikes were ordered, Centcom was directed to develop military options in response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, Votel said.
“We did that and developed a target-strike package with the goal being to eliminate those capabilities — including airframes, equipment and fuel supplies — that provided offensive military capacity for the regime from Shayrat airfield,” Votel said. “We did not deliberately target personnel in these strikes.”
Once the order was received, the general said, Centcom targeted 59 locations on the airfield and struck 57 of them.
Launching Point Degraded
“We assessed that we achieved our stated objective, and the regime’s ability to generate offensive military capability from Shayrat airfield, which we assess was the launching point for this chemical attack, has been severely degraded,” he said.
“We are obviously paying close attention to the environment in the wake of these strikes, and remain appropriately postured to respond as necessary,” he said.
The Centcom commander commended the “exceptional skill and professionalism” of U.S. military forces involved in the strike operation. “They performed extraordinarily well, and we are very, very proud of them,” Votel said.
The secretary issued a verbal warning against repetition of Syria’s chemical attack..
“The Syrian regime should think long and hard,” he said, “before it again acts so recklessly in violation of international law against the use of chemical weapons.”
(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkDoD)
(Follow Lisa Ferdinando on Twitter: @FerdinandoDoD)