Defense Secretary James Mattis and other top U.S. military leaders on Monday defended the limited scope of the U.S. bombardment of a Syrian military base, downplaying recent reports that the American naval strike did little to deter the country’s military operations.
Images of Syrian aircraft taking off from the al Shayrat airfield near the western Syrian city of Hom were broadcast over regional news outlets over the weekend, a day after U.S. warships launched a massive attack on the base.
The activity on the base, which U.S. intelligence claims was the jumping of point for a chemical attack against anti-government forces in Idlib, so soon after the American strike called into question the effectiveness of the attack — the first major military action ordered by the Trump White House.
Mr. Mattis came to the White House’s defense on Monday, saying the al Shayrat attack was “a measured response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons,” in Idlib, a hotbed for rebel forces battling to overthrow President Bashar Assad.
The 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched against the facility by American destroyers off the Syrian coastline destroyed 20 percent of the regime’s total fighter fleet, Mr. Mattis said in the statement. Damascus “has lost the ability to refuel or rearm aircraft at Shayrat airfield,” he said. U.S. attack demonstrated that “the United States will not passively stand by while Assad murders innocent people with chemical weapons,” the Pentagon chief added.
While U.S. forces targeted aircraft, fuel depots, logistics and munitions hubs inside al Shayrat, they avoided destroying the base’s airfield and on-base facilities known to be storing active chemical weapons.
But leaving a functional airfield and chemical weapon stockpiles intact for Assad forces at al Shayrat did not mean Assad’s ability to conduct additional chemical strikes was not deterred, said U.S. Central Command spokesman Col. John Thomas.
“Our task … was to strike a base that was directly related to the [Idlib] chemical weapons attack,” he told reporters at the Pentagon.
“We did not seek to … make the airfield long-term inoperable, what we did was degrade the Syrians’ ability to carry out a chemical weapons attack from that base,” adding recent reports of Syrian fighters resuming operations from the base “is not really relevant” to the goal of the U.S. strike, he said during a teleconference from command headquarters in Tampa, Florida.
When asked why American forces left the al Shayrat airfield intact, Col. Thomas replied: “Our goal was not to destroy the airfield. That was not the kind of attack and those were not the kind of weapons we would employ” if that had been the objective.
At the White House, administration officials said they were not ruling out ordering another strike in Syria, should Damascus use chemical weapons again.
“If those actions were to continue, further action would be considered by the United States,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Monday.
The al Shayrat strike also fell in line with President Trump’s “America First” view of foreign policy, according to Mr. Spicer.
“We’re going to make sure that our national interests are protected,” Mr. Spicer said. “We’re not just going to become the world’s policeman. The proliferation and the spread [of weapons of mass destruction] to other groups is a clear danger to our country. We’ve got to contain that.”
• David Boyer contributed to this report.
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