Defense Secretary James Mattis will brief President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago on military options against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's regime later on Thursday in the wake of a deadly attack which activists said killed at least 100 people — including 25 children — and injured at least 400 others earlier this week.
The White House and Pentagon have had detailed back-and-forth conversations over the past two days over options including a National Security Council meeting Wednesday. Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster have had repeated contact about the best way forward, a U.S. official told NBC News.
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Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, when asked when the U.S. will help lead efforts to remove Assad, responded "Those steps are underway."
Trump, speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One Thursday said "something should happen," when asked whether Assad should be removed from power.
Mattis is expected to present Trump with a range of options including:
- Grounding all Syrian aircraft
- Strikes against their air defenses
- Standoff strikes
- Targeted strikes against those responsible for the attack in Idlib.
The Pentagon worries that U.S. service members — including the roughly 500 Special Operations personnel offering "support" and "training" for campaigns including the current operation to oust the terror group from Raqqa — as well as others in the region could become a target. The U.S. military is also mindful of Syrian air defenses' capability to take down a manned aircraft.
Syrian fixed-wing aircraft dropped chemical weapons on civilians in Idlib earlier this week, two U.S. military officials told NBC News.
The U.S. military saw the aircraft on a radar and watched them drop the bombs, the officials said. The radar soon picked up the flashes and booms in the rebel-held area of Syria.
The bombs hit a hospital in an area where the al-Nusra Front operates damaging operating rooms and injuring medical professionals, the officials said.
Soon after, civilians on the ground began responding in a way that is consistent with exposure to a nerve agent documented in horrific images of people writhing in pain, coughing and young children gasping for air.
One official said they believe there was a combination of two agents and while they do not believe one was chlorine, he would not say what they were.