Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said it would be “very unwise” for Syrian government forces to use weaponized gas, citing unconfirmed reports of chlorine attacks in eastern Ghouta, which he pointed out seemed to be credible, The Wall Street Journal informs.
“We have made it very clear that it would be very unwise to use gas against people, civilians, on any battlefield,” he said on a military jet heading for Oman on Sunday.
However, Mattis declined to say whether there was evidence that Russian forces had directly killed any civilians or dropped munitions near Eastern Ghouta, where Syrian regime and rebel fighters are locked in an intense battle. He only said that “the President has full political maneuver room to take the decision that he believes appropriate,” referring to a possible U.S. response to the situation.
United Nations experts are investigating numerous reports of chlorine gas being used against civilians and rebel fighters, but Syria continues to deny ever using chemical weapons.
The U.S. defense secretary also accused Russia of being complicit in the reported chlorine-gas attacks.
“Either Russia is incompetent or in cahoots with Assad,” Mattis said.
He further dismissed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent assertion that Russia is building new nuclear weapons that could breach American defenses.
“I get paid to make strategic assessments, and I saw no change to the Russian military capability,” he told reporters traveling with him. “Each of these systems he’s talking about are still years away, I do not see them changing the military balance.”
In Washington, CIA director Mike Pompeo noted that President Donald Trump has said he will not tolerate chemical weapons attacks, but has not yet made a decision about the latest reports.
“In this case, the intelligence community is working diligently to verify what happened there,” Pompeo said, according to The Associated Press. “I’ve seen the pictures. You’ve seen the pictures as well. We have a higher standard to make sure we understand precisely what took place, precisely who did it so that our response can meet the threat.”
Mattis arrived in Oman late on Sunday for a series of meetings set to take place this week. U.S. ally Oman has for some years been suspected of allowing weaponry to flow over its border into the hands of Houthi rebels in Yemen. Mattis said he would listen to Omani leaders about their security challenges and explore ways to help them.