Mattis Syria Conference: Defense Chief Contradicts Spicer & Tillerson, Says Assad Regime Change Not A Plan

In a Defense Department briefing on Monday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis indicated that regime change in Syria is not a plan, emphasizing that the U.S. military’s main objective is to defeat ISIS, reports Reuters. This statement contrasts sharply with those made by Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who have both seemed to foreshadow a toppling of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Apparently, the secretary of defense disagrees.

There has been much speculation surrounding the future of the United States’ conflict with Syria following President Trump’s air strikes on Thursday. According to USA Today, Trump launched a cruise missile strike on an airfield in Syria as a response to chemical attacks that killed 27 children. The administration has been giving mixed messages regarding the purpose of this act and its consequences on future international strategy. When asked a direct question about whether the U.S. was pushing for Assad to step down, Mattis emphasized that the missile launch was a retaliation against a specific act, and not a first step towards any change in military plans, explaining,

“The strike that we’re talking about here today was directed at the people who planned it, who held on to the weapons contrary to what they had promised the international community and the United Nations when they said they had gotten rid of all those weapons and the reason for the strike was that alone. It was not a harbinger of some change in our military campaign”

A reporter also asked Mattis what the next steps would be for the United States, suggesting that perhaps safe-zones or no-fly-zones lay in the near future. Mattis explained that these options would not be ruled out and that President Trump is aware that they are considerations. However, he affirmed that the sole purpose of the strike was to retaliate against last week’s attack and did not indicate that these options would fit in as part of any escalation against Assad’s regime or that the U.S. has strayed from its main goal, which is to destroy ISIS.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer

The revelations conveyed by Mattis about America’s military strategy came in sharp contrast to the inflammatory statements made by Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who attempted to demonize President Assad by comparing him to Adolf Hitler, alleging that Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” according to the Washington Post. Additionally, Reuters reports that Spicer implied an end to Assad’s rule, stating Tuesday, “I don’t see a peaceful, stable Syria in the future that has Assad in charge. I don’t see a future Syria that has (Assad) as the leader of that government”

Reuters reports that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made similar comments, warning that “It is clear to us the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end,” as he criticized both Assad and Russia’s support of the Syrian leader before heading to Moscow. When Mattis was questioned about any role Russia may have played in the attack, he indicated that the U.S. has no knowledge of any entity’s participation in the attacks, beyond that of the Assad regime.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, President Trump, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the White House with Egyptian President

USA Today notes that the decision to launch a strike against Syria was in line with a statement made in September 2013 by President Obama in which he had drawn a “red line” on the utilization of chemical weapons. Although Assad had actually used such weapons to kill 1,400 Syrian civilians, Obama did not attack, instead opting to make a deal with Assad in which he agreed to give up all of his chemical weapons. Evidently, the agreement was broken.

As the president himself seems to have shifted his focus off of Syria, with his latest tweets talking tough on China and North Korea and celebrating the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, Americans are left to wonder why the members of the Trump administration are so conflicted in their messaging on Assad. The decision of Spicer and Tillerson to beat the war drums with Syria and Russia is confusing, given Mattis’ clear statements against regime change.

[Featured Image by Cliff Owen/SANA/AP Images]