Trump backtracks on attack timing

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump said Thursday an attack on Syria could take place "very soon or not so soon at all," arguing he had never signaled the timing of retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack he had suggested was imminent a day earlier.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats grilled Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on the legality and constitutionality of Trump ordering an attack on Syria without explicit authorization from Congress. Mattis insisted it would be justified as an act of self-defense; he insisted he could not talk about military plans because an attack "is not yet in the offing."

Trump made his latest statement in a tweet Thursday morning. Trump on Wednesday had warned Russia to "get ready" for a missile attack on its ally Syria. But on Thursday, Trump tweeted: "Never said when an attack on Syria would take place."

At a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Pentagon's 2019 budget request, Mattis said because the United States had no one at the site of the suspected chemical attack in Syria last Saturday, there is no hard evidence of what happened. But he said he personally believes it was an "inexcusable" use of chemical weapons.

Asked about the risks of U.S. military retaliation, Mattis cited two concerns, starting with avoiding civilian casualties.

"On a strategic level, it's how do we keep this from escalating out of control, if you get my drift on that," he said.

At stake in Syria is the potential for confrontation, if not outright conflict, between the United States and Russia, former Cold War foes whose relations have deteriorated in recent years over Moscow's intervention in Ukraine, its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and, most recently, its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Russian lawmakers have warned the United States that Moscow would view an airstrike on Syria as a war crime and it could trigger a direct U.S-Russian military clash. Russia's ambassador to Lebanon said any missiles fired at Syria would be shot down and the launching sites targeted.

At the House hearing, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat of Hawaii, disputed Trump's legal authority to act without congressional authority and suggested a U.S. strike would lead to war with Russia.

"I'm not ready to speculate that that would happen," Mattis said, referring to the prospect of open conflict with Russia.

Trump, who has often said a commander in chief should never telegraph his military intentions, apparently did so himself, tweeting missiles "will be coming" in response to the suspected chemical attack killing at least 40 people near Damascus.

"Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria," Trump wrote. "Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and 'smart!' You shouldn't be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!"

Mattis, however, indicated on Wednesday evidence of what happened was still being studied. At a photo-taking session during a Pentagon meeting with his Dutch counterpart, Mattis was asked by a reporter whether he had seen enough evidence to blame the Syrian government.

"We're still assessing the intelligence, ourselves and our allies," Mattis said. "We're still working on this."

Trump suggested Monday he had little doubt Syria was to blame, but neither he nor other administration officials have produced hard evidence. This is in contrast to an incident one year ago in which the U.S. government had video and other evidence of certain aspects of an actual attack by Syrian aircraft, which involved the use of sarin gas. Trump responded then by launching dozens of Navy cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield.

Comments