TEL AVIV — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday that, in the wake of punitive U.S. missile strikes, the Syrian Air Force has moved its combat aircraft to make them less vulnerable to attack — and re-issued warnings to the Assad regime not to use chemical weapons again.
In response to the recent U.S. strikes — the first against the Assad regime since U.S. forces began attacking the Islamic State in 2014 — Syria has reportedly moved its combat planes to a Russian base in the northeastern part of the country.
“They have dispersed their aircraft, no doubt,” Mattis said in a joint press conference with Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman during the first visit to Israel by a Cabinet official from the new Trump administration. “They have dispersed their aircraft in recent days.”
Mattis also confirmed recent reports that Syria, which was targeted by U.S. missile strikes for air attacks against rebel fighters using nerve gas, retains stockpiles of chemical weapons.
Some estimates have put the remaining supply at one to three tons, but Mattis and Lieberman declined to offer details.
“Syria has retained chemical weapons in violation of its agreement and its statement that they removed them all,” Mattis said. “It is a violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions.”
Mattis reiterated the U.S. position that that further chemical attacks would not be tolerated.
“They’d be ill-advised to try to use any again,” he said. “We have made that very clear with our strike.”
After his meeting with Lieberman at the Defense Ministry, Mattis also pledged to further enhance military cooperation with Israel, including assistance in acquiring new weapons.
Particularly, he cited a new $30 billion aid package signed last year by the Obama administration, which he called for the “foundation of our long term commitment.”
The pact will “enable Israel to continue to acquire the most advanced U.S. military technology,” Mattis said, especially in the area of missile defense such as the David’s Sling and Arrow 3 anti-missile systems.
“I look forward to accelerating progress on David’s Sling and Arrow 3 and other elements of our defense cooperation,” Mattis said.
Lieberman singled out as an “axis of evil” the regimes of President Bashar Assad in Syria, North Korea, Iran and the militant army Hezbollah in Lebanon — but made clear that Iran as the most dangerous security threat to Israel
He expressed hope that the new Trump administration will continue to pressure the Iranians.
“We have the patience to wait for complete steps,” Lieberman said.
Repeating previous statements by the Trump administration, Mattis said Tehran appears to be living up to the agreement reached in 2015 to freeze its nuclear weapons program for 10 years.
“As our secretary of state said about three days ago, Iran appears to the degree we can determine it — we are pretty confident — they appear to be living up to their part of the agreement,” Mattis told reporters.
But he added, “That in no way mitigates or excuses the other activities of Iran in the region, to include its support for the war in Yemen, which drags on thanks to Iranian support or what they are doing in Syria to keep Assad in power and continue the mayhem and the chaos and the murder that’s going on there and the refugees. “
The American alliance with Israel is also the centerpiece of the U.S. security strategy in the region, Mattis said, calling the relationship “a cornerstone of a larger regional security architecture that includes cooperation with Egypt, Jordan, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and our Gulf partners.”
“My goal is to further strengthen our partnership in this region,” he said.