Defense Secretary Mattis: White House is ‘concerned’ about possible use of sarin gas in Syria

Defense Secretary Mattis: White House is ‘concerned’ about possible use of sarin gas in Syria
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis (right) escorts Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Defense, United Kingdom, through an honor guard cordon during an arrival ceremony Thursday at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Mattis said Friday that the Trump administration is "concerned about the possibility of sarin use" by the Syrian government. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters Friday that the Trump administration is “concerned about the possibility of sarin use” by the Syrian government, Reuters reported.

He said that, while U.S. officials still have no conclusive evidence that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has actually used the chemical weapon, they believe Assad has “evolved” a collection of chemical weapons.

Mattis provided little context for the statements, which came one day after State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that the U.S. is “extremely concerned about yet another report of the use of chlorine gas by the Syrian regime to terrorize citizens.”

Mattis also pointed to the Syrian government’s use of chlorine as a weapon, which rescue workers near Damascus have confirmed, as possible proof that Syrians still own sarin gas and other chemical weapons. He noted that the U.S. currently has no evidence of sarin gas use, but said that “other groups on the ground — NGOs, fighters on the ground — have said that sarin has been used, so we are looking for evidence.”

Yahya al-Aridi, a spokesman for Syrian Negotiations Commission, a Syrian opposition group, told Reuters that “chemical weapons are being used in Ghouta and we have proof,” but did not elaborate, and did not say whether the chemical weapons were sarin or chlorine.

What else did Mattis say?

Making the case that the Trump administration takes Syria’s use of chemical weapons seriously, Mattis pointed to the consequences of last April’s sarin attack on a rebel-held area.  In response, President Donald Trump ordered a missile strike on the Shayrat airbase.

Mattis threatened that, if Syria does in fact still have chemical weapons, the U.S. will respond with April’s show of force.

“We are on the record and you all have seen how we reacted to that, so they would be ill-advised to go back to violating the chemical (weapons) convention,” Mattis said.

Mattis also expressed doubt about Syria’s 2013 agreement to get rid of all chemical weapons within the country:

We think that they did not carry out what they said they would do back when in the previous administration when they were caught using it. Obviously, they didn’t, because they used it again during our administration, and that gives us a lot of reason to suspect them, and now we have other reports from the battlefield, from people who claim it’s been used, we do not have evidence of it, but we are not refuting them, we are looking for evidence of it, since clearly we are dealing with the Assad regime that has used denial and deceit to hide their outlaw actions.