WASHINGTON – U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday that the Syrian government had dispersed its combat aircraft in recent days and still possesses chemical weapons, an issue he said should be addressed diplomatically.
Mattis repeated a warning to the Syrian government to not use chemical weapons again. U.S. officials have declined to draw a “red line,” but have warned of potential reprisals should the Syrian government use chemical weapons again.
“There can be no doubt in the international community’s mind that Syria has retained chemical weapons in violation of its agreement and its statement that it had removed them all,” Mattis said during a joint news conference Friday in Tel Aviv with his Israeli counterpart.
Mattis declined to provide evidence for the claim or specify the size of the stockpile, out of concern for revealing sources of intelligence.
The U.S. has concluded with high confidence that the Syrian government bombed the town of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4 with sarin nerve agent, killing some 100 people including 30 children. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia have denied the accusations.
“I can say authoritatively they have retained some, it’s a violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions and it’s going to have to be taken up diplomatically and they would be ill-advised to try to use any again; we made that very clear with our strike,” Mattis said.
The U.S. responded to the April 4 Syrian chemical attack two days later by firing dozens of cruise missiles at the airbase where the attack is believed to have been launched from. That attack took out about 20 planes, accounting for a significant portion of the already worn down air force.
Asked if the Syrian military had moved warplanes to a Russian base in Latakia, Mattis said that there is no doubt that government had “dispersed their aircraft in recent days.” The Syrian government could have done this as a precaution for potential additional U.S. strikes.
The spokesperson for the U.S. military command overseeing the Middle East, Col. John J. Thomas, would not say Friday if the Syrian government has altered or beefed up its air defenses in recent days. Thomas said Syrian air defenses remain “robust.”
Israeli defense officials told the Associated Press this week that the Syrian government retains between one and three tons of unspecified chemical weapons. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman declined Friday to confirm the report, but said: “We have 100 percent information that [the] Assad regime used chemical weapons against rebels.”
In a 2013 agreement negotiated by Russia and the U.S., Syria agreed to destroy its declared chemical weapons stockpile and the equipment used to make the weapons.
Mattis and Lieberman praised the U.S.-Israeli relationship, with Mattis describing it as the “cornerstone of a larger regional security architecture that includes cooperation with Egypt, Jordan, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and our Gulf partners.”
Mattis called the $30 billion aid package for Israel signed last year by the Obama administration the “foundation of our long-term commitment.”
Lieberman said Israel has confidence that the U.S. will continue to pressure Iran, which he massed as an “axis of evil” with the Syrian government, North Korea and the Lebanon-based militant army Hezbollah.
Mattis said Iran appears to be abiding by its obligations under the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, like U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said earlier this week.
“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,” Mattis said.
Ahead of the meeting with Lieberman, Mattis met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister said that he is encouraged by the change in administrations. The U.S.-Israel relationship under former President Barack Obama had been often strained, partially becuase of the nuclear accord.
“We sense a great change in the direction of American policy,” Netanyahu said, applauding the Trump administration’s tough talk against Iran and attack against the Syrian airbase.