The campaign in Syria to defeat the Islamic State is unchanged by the U.S. missile strikes against the Assad regime, which should not be seen as a prelude to U.S. participation in the Syrian civil war, Defense Secretary James Mattis said Tuesday.
“Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS,” Mattis said during his first news conference at the Pentagon since taking the helm in January.
He also reiterated the warning from an earlier statement that the Syrian government would be “ill-advised ever again to use chemical weapons.”
“If they use chemical weapons, they are going to pay a very, very stiff price,” Mattis said Tuesday.
While the U.S. has been operating against the Islamic State in Syria since 2013, Thursday night’s strikes using 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat airfield was the first U.S. operation targeting the Assad regime and, Mattis said, was in direct response to a chemical weapons attack the Syrian government on April 4.
The purpose of the U.S. strikes was to discourage the Assad regime from using chemical weapons again, but is not the start of a broader effort to intervene in the Syrian civil war, Mattis said, adding the U.S. “couldn’t stand passive” as the regime broke international law, but that the strikes should not be taken as a sign that the U.S. could enter “full bore” into the “complex” civil war.
“The intent was to stop the cycle of violence,” he said, with Army Gen. Joseph Votel, chief of the U.S. Central Command that oversees the Middle East at his side.
Asked if he believes the U.S. should implement a no-fly zone or other protections for civilians as a result of the use of chemical weapons, Mattis said that he saw no upcoming policy change, but acknowledged that the military always plans for all contingencies.
“The rest of the campaign stays on track exactly as it was before Assad’s violation,” he said.
The Assad regime, as well as the Russians who are working with them, have denied the Syrian government was behind the use of chemical weapons in the April 4 attack, but Mattis said he had personally reviewed the intelligence and had “no doubt” the Syrian regime was responsible.
The White House also released an unclassified rundown of the intelligence it had collected on Tuesday that it said proved the Syrians were behind the chemical weapons attack.
As the U.S. operation in Syria against the Islamic State continues, it’s unclear how open a line of communication is between the U.S. and Russia to ensure its pilots remain safe in shared airspace as both countries conduct strikes over Syria. Russians said after the U.S. strikes on Shayrat airfield that it was closing the communication line, which has been used daily. But U.S. officials said the two countries were still speaking to each other on Friday morning.
Votel would not discuss whether the deconfliction line was still being used on Tuesday, but Mattis said the “operation goes on, it’s well deconflicted.”
Mattis went on to say that it would be of no benefit to Russia to make its relationship with the U.S. any worse.
“It will not spiral out of control,” Mattis declared.
“I’m confident the Russians will act in their own best interest, and there’s nothing in their best interest to say they want this situation to go out of control,” he added.