Jim Mattis, Bolton’s rival

Trump is reportedly pushing for ‘sweeping’ strikes in Syria — but Mattis is pushing back

By Ben Brimelow
Apr 14, 2018

  • President Donald Trump’s national security team, led by newly appointed national security adviser John Bolton, is in favor of a sweeping military strike on Syrian forces, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
  • Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is reportedly against sweeping strikes, fearing that they will trigger a wider conflict with Russia and Iran.
  • It is the first time that Mattis has had to make his case alone since two of his closest allies, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former national security adviser H. R. McMaster, have left the administration.

President Donald Trump’s National Security Council is reportedly in favor of conducting a massive military strike on Syrian government targets in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack last Saturday, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

“Trump has been pushing for an attack that not only would punish the Syrian regime but also exact a price from two of its international patrons, Russia and Iran,” the Journal reports, citing a White House official.

While the president and his national security team seem to favor a larger strike than the one conducted on a Syrian air base in April 2017, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis appears to be dissenting.

Mattis has reportedly resisted plans for a larger strike over fears it could trigger a larger conflict with Russia and Iran, according to the Journal. He has reportedly blocked at least two opportunities to strike at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces since the crisis began.

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The US, France, and the UK, appear on the verge of combat with Syria, and possibly its ally Russia. A recent Institute of International Strategic Studies report on the military balance in Syria shows that the US and its allies would have a clear advantage.

Although experts agree that Russia likely wouldn’t engage the US in a counterattack, a retired Russian admiral said on Friday that Russia will sink US ships if need be.

Mattis’ reservations are in stark contrast to newly appointed national security adviser John Bolton, a noted foreign policy hawk who favors an attack that would be “ruinous” for the Syrian regime, the Journal reports. The strikes would be aimed at Assad’s “government and national infrastructure,” according to a person familiar with Bolton’s thinking.

A White House official told the Journal that Trump “wants Mattis to push the limits a little bit more.”

This is likely the first time that Mattis has had to try to convince the president of a major decision on his own. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a known Mattis ally in the Security Council, “had aligned himself with the Pentagon chief on virtually every major issue that came before the president,” according to the WSJ report.