Defense Secretary James Mattis said Thursday that although the U.S. strategy in Syria is to defeat ISIS and "not engage in the civil war itself," some things, like the use of chemical weapons, are "simply inexcusable beyond the pale" and "in the worst interest... of civilization itself."
Speaking at a House Armed Services Committee hearing, Mattis made the comments as justification for last year's U.S. missile strikes on Syria but did not suggest what military action the administration might take in Syria in the coming days.
On the complicated nature of the fight in Syria, Mattis said "at times you're going to see contrary impulses," after Rep. Joe Courtney, a Connecticut Democrat, read out some of President Donald Trump's tweets this week, first vowing to strike Syria, then suggesting the strikes may not be soon.
Mattis confirmed President Donald Trump has not yet made a decision and said that after the hearing ends, he will attend a meeting of the National Security Council at the White House, at which he will "take forward the various options to the president."
Mattis placed blame on Russia for the continuing alleged chemical attacks in Syria, despite the fact that Mattis said the U.S. does not have hard evidence that chemical weapons were used in the Douma attack that has killed at least 43 people.
He said that they were still trying to get Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons inspectors to Douma within the week to collect evidence.
"You saw President Obama try to deal with those chemical weapons when he was in and enlisting the Russians who now it shows were complicit in Syria retaining those weapons, Assad retaining them - and the only reason Assad is still in power is because of the Russians regrettable vetoes in the UN and the Russian and Iranian military," Mattis said.
But asked what is the best approach to deal with the conflict in Syria, Mattis said the U.S. remains committed to "ending that war through the Geneva process, the UN orchestrated effort."
Mattis said that he has seen refugees from all over the world, including in Kosovo and Africa, he has never seen "refugees as traumatized as coming out of Syria. It's got to end and our strategy remains the same as a year ago, to drive this to a U.N.-brokered peace, but at the same time keep our foot on the neck of ISIS until we suffocate it."
Asked what his biggest worry is about potential military action, Mattis cited civilian casualties.
"There's a tactical concern, ma'am," he said to Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., "that innocent people -- we don't add any civilian deaths. 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, if you get my drift on that."
Multiple committee members pressed Mattis on whether he has the authority to conduct strikes without a congressional vote. Mattis cited protection of the 2000 or so U.S. troops in Syria helping to fight ISIS.
"We have forces in the field as you know in Syria and the use of chemical weapons in Syria is not something we should assume that, well because he didn't use them on us this time, he wouldn't use them on us next time," he said.
"We have got to look at the use of chemical weapons, whether it be in Salisbury, England, or in Syria, as something that's inexcusable and it's got to be addressed, and Russia prevents the U.N. from dealing with it, we can sit acquiescent, or we can do something about it."
Mattis also vowed to notify congressional leaders of any military action before it is taken, and make a full report on any potential action to Congress afterward.
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