Mattis Warns Assad to “Wise Up” While Key Officials Signal Syria Policy Shift

Mattis Warns Assad to “Wise Up” While Key Officials Signal Syria Policy Shift

David Adesnik
13th September 2018 - FDD Policy Brief

Secretary of Defense James Mattis confirmed that the Assad regime is preparing to use chemical weapons as part of its impending offensive in Idlib province. Referring to Assad, Mattis told reporters, “He’s been warned,” and “we’ll see if he’s wised up” since previous rounds of U.S. airstrikes. The secretary’s comments follow similar remarks from the president, along with signals from key officials, that the U.S. will pursue a more assertive policy toward Syrian war crimes.

Over the past month, airstrikes and shelling have signaled the regime’s preparations to reclaim Idlib province, the last major stronghold of rebel forces in western Syria. More than a million displaced civilians have sought refuge in Idlib, which also plays host to thousands of rebel fighters tied to al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned yesterday that a regime offensive “would unleash a humanitarian nightmare.” 

Last week, President Donald Trump warned Bashar al-Assad as well as Russia and Iran that pro-regime forces “must not recklessly attack Idlib Province.” Trump added two days later, “[There] cannot be a slaughter. If it’s a slaughter, the world is going to get very, very angry, and the United States is going to get very angry, too.” 

It is still unclear whether the U.S. would retaliate with force only if Assad employed chemical weapons, or whether other atrocities might also provoke a response. A statement from the White House press secretary explicitly identified chemical weapons as the trigger, whereas U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told the Security Council, “We consider any assault on Idlib to be a dangerous escalation.” 

This all comes amidst signs of a broader shift in U.S. policy toward Syria, away from the president’s stated determination to withdraw U.S. troops as soon as possible. Ambassador James Jeffrey, the State Department’s new representative for Syria, said, “The new policy is we’re no longer pulling out by the end of the year.” “We are not in a hurry,” Jeffrey added, “I am confident the president is on board with this.” 

On Tuesday, reporters asked Mattis whether the president had given him new guidance on Syria. He responded, “We’re aligned between the president, the national security adviser, State Department, Secretary Pompeo [and] Ambassador Jeffrey.” Mattis demurred, however, when asked if U.S. forces would remain in Syria as a bulwark against Iranian influence. The secretary said, “that would be a decision by the president of the United States.” 

Recognizing the importance of countering Iranian influence in Syria would represent a major step toward framing a coherent and strategically sound policy toward both Iran and Syria. The logical pursuit of such a policy would include maintaining the strong U.S. position in northeast Syria, as well as the military base at Tanf that could block the most desirable supply route for Iran, running from Baghdad to Damascus. The most immediate challenge, however, is to prevent a mass atrocity in Idlib. If Assad and his partners do not heed the president’s warning, the consequences should be severe. 

David Adesnik is director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @adesnik.

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