Pentagon Drawing Up Options for Potential Military Response to Syria Gas Attack

The Pentagon
The Pentagon / Getty Images
April 6, 2017

The Pentagon is drawing up plans for a potential military response to Tuesday's chemical weapons attack in Syria, which the U.S. believes the Syrian government was behind.

Defense Department officials told the Washington Examiner on Thursday that the Pentagon's top leadership is meeting to go through a range of options after reports emerged of a large-scale attack on Syrian noncombatants with chemical agents.

The Trump administration has said the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is responsible for Tuesday's chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib Province in northern Syria, which killed dozens of people, including children. The attack used sarin gas, a neurotoxic chemical weapon banned by international treaty, according to the Turkish Health Ministry.

The Syrian government has denied involvement in the assault, while Russia, which is supporting Assad's forces in the Syrian conflict, has urged others not to rush to judgment and threatened to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning it.

The attack has caused senior officials to rethink the administration's policy toward Syria and the Pentagon to consider possible military action.

"There are very senior level meetings underway," one Pentagon official told the Examiner. "But I have not seen a concrete plan."

The meetings reportedly include Defense Secretary James Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, while other senior commanders, including the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, are being consulted.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the president's national security adviser, have been communicating regularly with Pentagon leadership, the Washington Post reported.

One senior military official told the Examiner the Pentagon is considering military options.

"Options yes. We are in the business of providing options," the official said. "I would watch this one closely."

Another official went into further detail, explaining, "The options include any legitimate military target including chemical plants, aircraft, command and control centers."

"We have a lot of options because we have a lot of assets in the area," the official continued, saying those assets include planes and Mediterranean-based cruise missiles.

It is unclear whether President Trump asked the Pentagon to draw up military options for him to review, or, as one Defense Department official said, it is "prudent planning" in response to the president's condemnation of the attack.

AFP reported on Thursday that the Pentagon was presenting military options to the White House, potentially indicating Trump had requested military options to review.

The Trump administration has appeared to shift its Syria policy and its stance on Assad's future in the wake of the chemical attack.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last week that the "longer term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people."

However, he later indicated Thursday during a press conference, two days after the attack, that Assad must ultimately be removed from power.

"Assad's role in the future is uncertain, clearly," Tillerson told reporters. "With the action he's taken, it would seem there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people."

The nation's top diplomat added that "we are considering an appropriate response for this chemical weapons attack."

Trump said on Wednesday that Syria "is now my responsibility" and indicated the U.S. would respond to the chemical attack in some manner.

"That crosses many, many lines," Trump said. "Beyond a red line–many, many lines."