Briefing by Secretary Mattis on U.S. Strikes in Syria
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis; Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph F. Dunford; Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JIM MATTIS: Well, good evening, ladies and gentlemen. As the world knows, the Syrian people have suffered terribly under the prolonged brutality of the Assad regime.
On April 7th, the regime decided to again defy the norms of civilized people, showing callous, disregard for international law, by using chemical weapons to murder women, children and other innocents.
We and our allies find these atrocities inexcusable. As our commander in chief, the president has the authority under Article II of the Constitution to use military force overseas to defend important United States national interests. The United States has vital national interests in averting a worsening catastrophe in Syria, and specifically deterring the use and proliferation of chemical weapons.
Last year in response to a chemical weapons attack against civilians and to signal the regime to cease chemical weapons use, we targeted the military base from which the weapons were delivered.
Earlier today, President Trump directed the U.S. military to conduct operations in consonance with our allies to destroy the Syrian regime's chemical weapons research development and production capability.
Tonight, France, the United Kingdom and the United States took decisive action to strike the Syrian chemical weapons infrastructure.
Clearly the Assad regime did not get the message last year. This time our allies and we have struck harder. Together we have sent a clear message to Assad and his murderous lieutenants that they should not perpetrate another chemical weapons attack for which they will be held accountable.
The 70 nations in the defeat-ISIS Coalition remain committed to defeating ISIS in Syria.
The strike tonight separately demonstrates international resolve to prevent chemical weapons from being used on anyone under any circumstances in contravention of international law.
I want to emphasize that these strikes are directed at the Syrian regime. In conducting these strikes we have gone to great lengths to avoid civilian and foreign casualties.
But it is a time for all civilized nations to urgently unite and ending the Syrian civil war by supporting the United Nations-backed Geneva Peace Process.
In accordance with the chemical weapons convention prohibiting the use of such weapons, we urge responsible nations to condemn the Assad regime and to join us in our firm resolve to prevent chemical weapons from being used again.
General Dunford will provide a military update.
GENERAL JOSEPH F. DUNFORD: Good evening. I'm joined by our French attaché Brigadier General Montague and our British Attached Air Vice Marshal Gavin Parker. Secretary Mattis has just outlined the policy and legal framework for tonight's strike in Syria. I'll address the strike for the military dimension.
At 9:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, French, British and U.S. forces struck targets in Syria in support of President Trump's objective to deter the future use of chemical weapons. Our forces were integrated throughout the planning and execution of the operation.
The targets that were struck and destroyed were specifically associated with the Syrian regime's chemical weapons program. We also selected targets that would minimize the risk to innocent civilians.
The first target was a scientific research center located in the greater Damascus area. This military facility was a Syrian center for the research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological warfare technology.
The second target was a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs. We assessed that this was the primary location of Syrian sarin and precursor production equipment.
The third target, which was in the vicinity of the second target, contained both a chemical weapons equipment storage facility and an important command post.
U.S., British and French Naval and Air Forces were involved in the operation. And for reasons of operational security, I won't be more specific this evening.
Before we take questions, I'd like to address how this evening's strike were qualitatively and quantitatively different than 2017. Last year we conducted a unilateral strike on a single site. The focus was on the aircraft associated with the Syrian chemical weapons attack in April of 2017.
This evening we conducted strikes with two allies on multiple sites that will result in a long-term degradation of Syria's capability to research, develop and employ chemical and biological weapons. Important infrastructure was destroyed, which will result in a setback for the Syrian regime. They will lose years of research and development data, specialized equipment and expensive chemical weapons precursors.
The strike was not only a strong message to the regime that their actions were inexcusable, but it also inflicted maximum damage, without unnecessary risk to innocent civilians.
And with that the secretary and I would be glad to take your questions.
Q: Mr. Secretary, first of all, have -- did the U.S. suffer any losses initially.
And more broadly, could you -- the president in his remarks said the U.S. and its allies are prepared to sustain this operation until Syria stop using chemical weapons. Does that mean the U.S. and its partners will continue military operations beyond this initial operation tonight?
SEC. MATTIS: That will depend on Mr. Assad, should he decide to use more chemical weapons in the future. And of course the -- the powers that have signed the chemical weapons prohibition have every reason to challenge Assad should he choose to violate that. But right now this is a one-time shot, and I believe it has sent a very strong message to dissuade him, to deter him from doing this.
Q: Any U.S. losses?
SEC. MATTIS: We'll brief on that in -- we're not -- we want to give you a full brief in the morning. Right now we have no reports of losses.
Q: Thank you.
Q: Secretary Mattis, Chairman Dunford, thank you for doing that.
Have you seen any retaliation from the Russians or the Iranians and how -- and how long do you think this operation could last? Is it a matter of hours or days, or could it go longer than that?
GEN. DUNFORD: We did have some initial surface-to-air-missile activity from the Syrian regime. That's the only retaliatory action that we're aware of at this time, and the -- the nature of the operation, we've completed the targets that were assigned to the United States Central Command. Those operations are complete.
Q: General Dunford and also Secretary Mattis, could you talk a little bit more about your concerns that you've expressed earlier in the week about Russian escalation.
General Dunford, were you able to talk to your Russian counterpart, General Gerasimov? What are your concerns about escalation? And if we're permitted to ask your British counterpart a question, I would like to know the sense of your government about whether the situation with the Skirpals and the Russian involvement in that, how that Russian involvement played a role in your decision to enter this coalition this evening?
GEN. DUNFORD: Barbara, let me address the last point first. Our attaché was kind enough to join us this evening. They're not going to get out in front of their president and prime minister, respectively, so that they'll -- the national messages will be provided from their capitals here very soon.
But with regard to the Russian concerns, we specifically identified these targets to mitigate the risk of Russian forces being involved, and we used our normal deconfliction channels -- those were active this week -- to work through the airspace issue and so forth. We did do not do any coordination with the Russians on the strikes, nor did we pre-notify them.
Q: Mr. Secretary, it was just a couple of days ago that you said you were still assessing the intelligence on the chemicals weapons attacks, suspected attack. So at this point do you know what the chemical was used in that attack? Was it sarin? Was it chlorine?
And also, what is your evidence it was actually delivered by the Syrian regime?
SEC. MATTIS: Say the last part again, Tom?
Q: What's your evidence it was delivered by the Syrian regime? Are you quite clear it was?
SEC. MATTIS: I am confident the Syrian regime conducted a chemical attack on innocent people in this last week, yes. Absolutely confident of it. And we have the intelligence level of confidence that we needed to conduct the attack.
And as far as the actual chemical used, do you know what it was? Was it nerve agent? Was there chlorine? Do you have a sense of what it was?
SEC. MATTIS: We are very much aware of one of the agents. There may have been more than one agent used. We are not clear on that yet. We know at least one chemical agent was used.
Q: I just want to clarify on the deconfliction line. You notified the Russians ahead of time before the operation began what you were going to do and what targets you were going to strike?
GEN. DUNFORD: Gordon, to be clear, the only -- the only communications that took place specifically associated with this operation before the targets were struck was the normal deconfliction of the airspace, the procedures that are in place for all of our operations in Syria.
Q: General Dunford, you mentioned that the Russian -- or the Syrian air defenses had engaged, but Syrian State TV is saying they shot down 13 Tomahawk missiles. Can you refute that?
GEN. DUNFORD: Jennifer, I can't tell you the results. We literally, as you know, the -- the time on target was about an hour ago, and we came straight up here to give you the best information we have right now.
Tomorrow morning, as the secretary will talk about in a minute, we'll give you the more detailed operational update and some of the details, but those details aren't available to us right now.
Q: This wave of airstrikes is over.
GEN. DUNFORD: This wave of airstrikes is over. That's why we're out here speaking to you now.
Q: Secretary Mattis, I just wanted to follow up on what you said about the legal basis for this strike. Could you talk a little bit more about that, because in your testimony the other day, it sounded like you were saying that this -- a potential strike would somehow be linked to self defense, and that the presence of American forces in Syria. Can you say a little bit more about that?
And also regarding whether or not there will be future action or additional strikes, you said that would depend on whether or not the Assad government conducts future chemical attacks. But could you explain a little bit more about what would be the threshold for that, because there were repeated chemical attacks between the April 2017 attack and today. And would you consider a small-scale chlorine attack sufficient to launch additional strikes?
SEC. MATTIS: Right now I would just tell you we're in close consultation with our allies. We review all of the evidence all of the time. It is difficult, as you know, to get evidence out of Syria. But right now we have no additional attacks planned.
But as far as the legal authority under the Article II of the Constitution, we believe the president has ever reason to defend vital American interests, and that is what he did here tonight under that authority.
Q: Hi, sir. A couple of questions for General Dunford. What were some of the targeting considerations or difficulties involving going after chemical facilities? How long did the operation take to plan?
And for Secretary Mattis, last year's strikes were described as proportional, moderate. How would you describe this year's in contrast to that?
GEN. DUNFORD: Yes, Tony, we chose these particular targets to mitigate the risk of civilian casualties, number one. We chose these targets because they were specifically associated with the chemical program, the Syrian chemical program.
And obviously when we take a look at target planning and so forth, we look at the location relative to other populated areas, collateral damage, proportionality. So these targets were carefully selected with proportionality discrimination and being specifically associated with the chemical program.
Q: All standoff weapons or any manned aircraft...
GEN. DUNFORD: We're going to -- we're going to -- there were manned aircraft involved. I won't give you the details of the operation until tomorrow morning, but we will do that at that time.
Q: A question to Secretary Mattis. So up until yesterday, and I'm going to quote you here, you said, "I cannot tell you that we have evidence. So when did you become confident that a chemical attack happened?
And the second one...
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, yesterday.
Q: Since yesterday, after you said that.
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: And then second, you talked about targeting the chemical weapons infrastructure of al-Assad. If there were actually any chemical weapons or agents in those facilities that you targeted, I assume they would create health hazard in the region, or no?
SEC. MATTIS: We don't believe -- we did very close analysis, as the chairman pointed out. We did everything we could in our intelligence assessment and our planning to minimize to the maximum degree possible any chance of civilian casualties. We are very much aware this is difficult to do in a situation like this, especially when the poison gas that Assad assured the world he had gotten rid of obviously still exists. So it is a challenging problem set, and we had the right military officers dealing with it.
Q: So you can confirm there's going to no leak into the air or...
SEC. MATTIS: Of course not. We'll do our best.
DANA WHITE: Tara Copp?
Q: General Dunford, when the surface-to-air defenses engaged, did they become a target, and did U.S. or other assets take out those targets?
GEN. DUNFORD: Yes, Tara, I'm not aware of any response that we took right now. Again, we'll gather overnight. As you can imagine, we tried to leave the United States Central Command alone here tonight. They were quite busy. We'll, through the night, gather the operational detail, and we'll be back tomorrow morning to provide that to you.
Q: Secretary Mattis or Chairman Dunford, have -- last time, last year you changed the force-protection levels for the Syrian troops, that were U.S. troops that were in Syria. There are 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria. Have you changed course force-protection levels based on potential responses from Russia?
GEN. DUNFORD: Yeah, Hans, as you can imagine, the commander always takes prudent measures, especially in an environment that they were in tonight. So they did make adjustments.
Q: And just to be clear on the deconfliction line -- you told them that you're going to be operating in airspace, but you didn't tell them, the Russians, what the targets were...
GEN. DUNFORD: That is absolutely correct. We used the normal deconfliction channels to deconflict the airspace that we were using. We did not coordinate targets or any plans with the Russians.
Q: What was their response, sir?
GEN. DUNFORD: That information was passed at the operational link from the Combined Air Operational Center in Qatar, so I wasn't on the line, but we -- that kind of information just, to put it in perspective, is passed routinely, every day and every night. So they may not have found anything unusual about that particular airspace deconfliction.
MS. WHITE: Way in the back.
Q: Thank you so much. Katrina Manson with the Financial Times.
Can you talk a little bit about any Iran targets that you were initially -- Iran-associated targets, that you initially considered, and why you may have not gone to them? And could your colleagues explain exactly the sort of contribution you've made to tonight's operation.
SEC. MATTIS: Again, our allied officers are here out of respect for the fact that they were part of the mission from planning all the way through to the political decision taken. And once their heads of state speak tomorrow, then that will be the initial statement from those capitals.
But as far as any other targets, we looked at targets specifically designed to address the chemical weapons threat that we have seen manifested. The whole world has watched in horror these weapons being used. Those were the only targets that we were examining for prosecution.
Q: Mr. Secretary and General Dunford, you mentioned three target areas that were struck. How can you be sure that from now on these are all of the target areas, or all of the involved production facilities for chemical weapons that the Syrians have -- are using? And do you believe that there are additional locations where they are producing such materials?
GEN. DUNFORD: That's a great question. We had a number of targets to select from. And again, we did not select those that had a high risk of collateral damage, and specifically a high risk of civilian casualties. And so the weapon weaponeering -- you back to your earlier question, the weaponeering was done, the modeling was done to make sure that we mitigated the risk of any chemicals that were in those facilities, and mitigated the risk of civilian casualties.
So with our other targets that we looked at, there were -- we selected these specific targets both based on the significance to the chemical weapons program, as well as the location and the layout.
Q: Thanks. Secretary Mattis, it seems like this strike tonight was pretty limited, not too dissimilar from last year. I know it was three -- three targets this time instead of one but it still seems a little more targeted and more specific than what I think a lot of people were expecting. Can you walk us through your decision to -- did concern about escalation with Russia and it affects your decision to keep this more targeted?
And moving from there, how much assurance can you give us that this is going to do what the strike last year didn't do, which is basically to stop President Assad from using chemical weapons again.
SEC. MATTIS: Helene, nothing is certain in these kinds of matters, however we used a little over double the number of weapons this year than we used last year. It was done on targets that we believed were selected to hurt the chemical weapons program. We confined it to the chemical weapons-type targets. We were not out to expand this. We were very precise and proportionate. But at the same time, it was a heavy strike.
Q: Mr. Secretary, prior to the attack, how important was it to get the support from the allies, not only from an intelligence point of view but also just from the countries themselves?
SEC. MATTIS: It's always important that we act internationally in a unified way over something, especially that is -- that is such an atrocity as this, that we've observed going on in Syria.
But I would also tell you that these allies -- the Americans, the French, the British -- we have operated together through thick and thin, through good times and bad, and this is a very, very well-integrated team. Wherever we operate, we do so with complete trust in each other, the professionalism, but more than that, the belief that one another will be there when the chips are down. So it's important, and it's -- it's a statement about the level of trust between our nations.
Q: General Dunford, could you just let us know whether the Syrians were able to hide a lot of these chemical weapons in the last several days, since there's been so much talk about a possible strike? Did that give the Syrians time to kind of move some of these weapons off limits?
And then, Secretary Mattis, just to confirm earlier when you were saying you had information about one of the chemicals, but we're all assuming that means chlorine, that you have information confirming chlorine, but not necessarily sarin. Can you just clarify that?
GEN. DUNFORD: For the first question, I'm not aware of any specific actions that the Syrians took to move chemical weapons in last couple of days.
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, we're very confident that chlorine was used. We are not ruling out sarin right now.
Q: General, I'd like to follow up Luis’ question about the targets that you first examined, and then triaged down to the three tonight. It sounds like you went after facilities and not the actual weapons, as indicated earlier, to minimize accidental risk to civilians.
In the targets that remain, could you characterize perhaps the ability for Syria and ramp up again, and again have chemical weapons?
GEN. DUNFORD: Yes, I think it's too early to make that assessment. It's too early to make that assessment right now.
MS. WHITE: The last questions (inaudible).
Q: Thank you. General Dunford, did any Russian defenses engage U.S., British or French ships or missiles?
And Secretary Mattis, were any of the strikes tonight intended to kill Bashar al-Assad?
GEN. DUNFORD: The only reaction that I'm aware of at this time was Syrian surface-to-air missiles. I happened to be down in an actual command -- military command center and was aware of that activity. I'm not aware of any Russian activity, and I'm not aware of the full scope of the Syrian regime response at this time.
Again, those will be details we'll pull together for you in the morning.
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, the targets tonight, again, were specifically designed to degrade the Syrian war machine's ability to create chemical weapons, and to set that back right now. There were no attempts to broaden or expand that target set.
And, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming in this evening.
Based on recent experience, we fully expect a significant disinformation campaign over the coming days by those who have aligned themselves with the Assad regime.
And in an effort to maintain transparency and accuracy, my assistant for public affairs. Ms. Dana White and Lieutenant General Mckenzie, the director of the Joint Staff here in Washington, will provide a brief of known details tomorrow morning, we anticipate about 9:00 in this same location.
But thank you again for coming in this evening, ladies and gentlemen.
(UNKNOWN): Thank you.