12 Apr, 2018
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis reiterated that the Pentagon still has no independent evidence to confirm that there was a chemical weapons attack in Syria last week, but said he personally believes there was one.
“I believe there was a chemical attack. We are looking for the actual evidence,” the secretary told lawmakers on Thursday.
He added that the fact-finding mission by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) may arrive at the site of the alleged attack in the town of Douma “within a week,” but stressed that the inspectors’ mandate would be limited to establishing whether chemical weapons were used at the location or not. He accused Russia and Syria of obstructing the probe, despite Syria inviting the OPCW inspectors there in the first place.
“As each day goes by – you know it’s an impersistent gas – it becomes more and more difficult to confirm it,” he said.
Douma at the time of the alleged attack was the under control of the Islamist group Army of Islam, and was only this week captured by the Syrian government forces. The security there remains fragile, as evidenced by a surprise militant attack, in which three Russian journalists were injured on Wednesday. The OPCW is understandably reluctant to send its people to unsafe areas, and never conducted an on the ground investigation at the site of last year’s alleged chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun due to safety concerns.
Mattis said the US may use military action again, as it did after the last year’s incident, but has to consider the wider picture in its reaction. “We are trying to stop the murder of innocent people. But on a strategic level it is how do we keep this from escalating out of control, if you get my drift on that,” he explained.
Russia believes that both last year’s chemical weapons incident and the one in Douma last week were staged by armed militants with a goal to goad the US into taking military action against the Syrian government. The Syrian Army is on a steady path to military victory in the seven-year-long civil war that has drawn in plenty of foreign players. A full-scale bombing campaign similar to that in Libya in 2011 could turn the tide for opponents of Damascus.
The US leadership has been inconsistent in its attitude to the idea of striking Syrian government targets again. US President Donald Trump has been sending mixed signals, alternating between threatening Syria and Russia with an imminent attack, and saying there was no timetable for an attack. Trump will be holding a number of meetings on Syria on Thursday, he told journalists.
“We’re having a number of meetings today, we’ll see what happens,” the president said. “Now we have to make some… decisions, so they’ll be made fairly soon.”