(CNSNews.com) - At various times in March, President Trump said he wants to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria "very soon," but this week, following a reported chemical attack in Syria, he tweeted, "Get ready Russia, because (missiles) will be coming, nice and new and smart."
At a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Defense Secretary James Mattis was asked to explain the U.S. policy and strategy regarding the Assad regime, its future and the Syrian civil war.
"On Syria,” Mattis replied, "both the last administration and this one made very clear that our role in Syria is the defeat of ISIS. We are not going to engage in the civil war itself.
“Now, you can look back to a year ago when we did fire missiles into Syria, unrelated to ISIS, and that was of course the use of chemical weapons. And some things are simply inexcusable, beyond the pale, and in the worst interest of not just of the chemical weapons convention, but of civilization itself.
“And so the recognition of that means at times you're going to see contrary impulses. You saw President Obama try to deal with those chemical weapons when he was in, and enlisting the Russians who now have chosen to work complicit in Syria retaining those weapons, Assad retaining them.”
Mattis said the only reason Assad remains in power is because of Russian vetoes at the U.N. and because the Russians and Iranians back him militarily.
"So how do we deal with this very complex situation?" Mattis asked rhetorically.
“First of all, we are committed to ending that war through the Geneva process, the U.N.-orchestrated effort. It has been unfulfilled because, again, Russia has continually blocked the effort. That doesn't mean we give up. We work with the international community, the United Nations, to get the Geneva process underway and make certain that we don't allow this war to go on."
Mattis said that he's seen all kinds of refugees in his military career, but "I've never seen refugees as traumatized" as those coming out of Syria.
"It's got to end," Mattis said, "and our strategy remains the same as a year ago -- to drive this to a U.N.-brokered peace, but at the same time, keep our foot on the neck of ISIS until we suffocate it."