According to people briefed on the matter, Trump’s senior military advisers Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told the president just hours before the Syria strike he had three options against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad following a chemical weapons attack against his people.
Trump Had Three Military Options
The secret meeting happened at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate where the billionaire invited Chinese President Xi Jinping for a two-day summit. Mattis and McMaster’s three options turned into two: bomb the Syrian airbase from where the warplanes carrying poisonous gas took off or attack multiple airfields in the area.
Last Tuesday’s gas attack killed more than 70 people, of whom 20 were children. Assad and Russia have denied allegations that Syrian forces were behind the assault. Moscow said the fatalities were caused by a gas leak from a chamber where rebels had stored chemical weapons. In return, rebels said the allegations are untrue.
Sources said that after the two advisers had presented the three options, Trump picked the least aggressive one. That third option was meant to keep Russian and Syrian casualties to a minimum. Fifty-nine cruise missiles hit the Shayrat air field on Thursday evening.
The two advisers noted that Trump’s option would send the clearest message to Assad about the retaliatory strike. Moreover, Trump chose to attack just the base and spared the living quarters at the periphery occupied by Russian agents, Syrian troops, and civilian employees.
If Trump had gone for another option, the strike could have caused hundreds of casualties. A person familiar with the matter said the Trump administration might conduct other strikes depending on Assad’s response to the strike.
Whether this is over is up to President Assad. We have additional options ready to go,
The U.S. source said.
Sources underlined that Trump had used Mattis and McMaster’s expertise when he authorized the attacks. If he had used the advice from political advisers, the situation might have looked a lot worse.
Other Options Included Sanctions and Diplomatic Pressure
Sources also revealed that Trump demanded a list of choices to retaliate against the Syrian government after he heard the news about the chemical attack Tuesday. The sources agreed to make the revelations on the condition of anonymity as intelligence issues, and internal deliberations should remain secret.
Administration officials said Trump had multiple options including sanctions, military actions, and diplomatic pressure. These options were drafted long before he took office.
People briefed on the matter said that the most aggressive option would have been a so-called ‘decapitation’ strike on Assad’s mansion west of downtown Damascus. Trump reportedly asked a lot of questions before taking a final decision. Sources said the president wanted the options ‘refined.’
As of Wednesday morning, the U.S. knew exactly which air base was used for the alleged gas attack. U.S. officials said they tracked the fighter jet that carried out the attack. But Trump reportedly told his military aides to dust off the military option and adapt it to the new target and timing.
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