Monday 15 October 2018

Trump had considered launching much bigger bombing raid on Syria

A man and a boy ride a motorbike in the city of Douma, near Damascus, where the Syrian regime launched a chemical attack last weekend. Photo: Reuters/Omar Sanadiki
A man and a boy ride a motorbike in the city of Douma, near Damascus, where the Syrian regime launched a chemical attack last weekend. Photo: Reuters/Omar Sanadiki

Nick Allen

Donald Trump reportedly considered a strike three times bigger than the one actually launched on Syria - potentially including targeting Russian air defence systems, but was dissuaded by James Mattis, his defence secretary.

The Pentagon presented Mr Trump with three options for how to respond to the chemical attack by the Syrian regime in Douma on April 7. A first, and most cautious, option consisted of a limited strike on Syrian chemical weapons facilities, while a second also included military command posts.

The third option would have devastated Bashar al-Assad militarily and could have targeted Syrian-based Russian air defence capabilities as part of that, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

Such a strike would have been three times the size of the military action that was eventually carried out by the US, UK and France in the early hours of last Saturday in which a total of 105 missiles were launched at Syrian targets.

Over several days of intense planning meetings with his top national security advisers last week, Mr Trump was said to have asked about hitting both Russian and Iranian targets if that was required to hurt Assad militarily, The Wall Street Journal reported.

He and Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, were said to have been pushing for a more robust strike. However, having laid out the three options Mr Mattis, according to the report, urged caution and suggested the third one could lead to an escalation by Russia or Iran.

The strike that ultimately happened reportedly drew from the first two options. That decision was seen as confirmation of the elevated standing of Mr Mattis within the US administration.

Asked whether Mr Trump had been pushing for proposals that included hitting Russian and Iranian targets in Syria, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said "a number of options" had been, and still remain, on the table.

She said: "We're not going to get into any other options that were on the table. We're going to continue to keep a number of options on the table if Syria and Russia and Iran don't show to be better actors in this process."

Meanwhile, Mr Trump dismissed claims by Syria and Russia that some US missiles were shot down. He said: "We had well over 100 missiles. They didn't shoot one down. Their equipment didn't work too well... every one [of ours] hit its target, not one shot down."

John Bolton, Mr Trump's new national security adviser who is considered to be a hawk, was said to have pushed for the toughest response possible, but not to have advocated the third option, believing it could draw the US further into a conflict in Syria.

The three Syrian targets ultimately chosen were involved in the "research, development and deployment" of chemical weapons, the Pentagon said.

One was a scientific facility near Damascus and the other two were chemical weapons storage sites near Homs, one of which had been used as a military command post.

The strike involved more than double the number of missiles used in the US air strike on Syria in April 2017.

In a separate development, the White House yesterday appeared to row back from imminent Russia sanctions announced at the weekend by Ms Haley.

Ms Sanders said: "We are considering additional sanctions on Russia and a decision will be made in the near future."

That statement came as The Washington Post reported that Mr Trump had felt "misled" into expelling 60 Russian diplomats over the Salisbury spy poisoning. He was reportedly furious when he discovered Germany and France were expelling only a handful of Russians, and was surprised that the US was matching the total EU figure.

The paper quoted a source saying "a lot of curse words" were used by the president. It also reported that Mr Trump pushed backed against British Prime Minister Theresa May when asked to act over the phone.

"Why are you asking me to do this," he reportedly asked the Prime Minister over expulsions. "What's Germany going to do? What about France?"

The White House declined to directly deny Mr Trump was unhappy over the expulsions. A British source said they did not recognise the account of the phone call.

Irish Independent

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