For Trump, a Hectic Week of Planning to Organize Syria Strike

For Trump, a Hectic Week of Planning to Organize Syria Strike

President Donald Trump delivering a speech at the White House on Thursday when he said decisions on the U.S. response to the suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria would be made
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President Donald Trump delivering a speech at the White House on Thursday when he said decisions on the U.S. response to the suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria would be made 'fairly soon.’

Staring at pictures of stricken children last weekend, President Donald Trump knew right away he wanted reprisals against Syria for a suspected chemical weapons attack that killed 43 civilians and left scores more injured.

He vowed Sunday that the Syrian regime and its patrons, Russian and Iran, would “pay” for the assault.

“Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!” Mr. Trump tweeted.

But organizing the retaliatory strike proved more complicated and time-consuming than he imagined, aides said, testing the skills of a commander-in-chief who never served in the military or held a government post before his upset victory in the 2016 election.

Mr. Trump spent the week stitching together a coalition with Britain and France to launch the strike. He also faced resistance from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who wanted a more limited action that wouldn’t risk a wider confrontation with Russian forces occupying a piece of the Syrian battlefield, U.S. officials said.

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President Donald Trump said the recent suspected chemical attack in Syria was the crime of a “monster” and the strikes aim to deter the production and use of chemical weapons. Photo: AP

Mr. Trump chafed over the delays and pressed Mr. Mattis for a more sweeping military option that would deter Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from launching any more chemical attacks.

It is too early to assess the results. But in announcing the attack Friday night, Mr. Trump made clear that he was reaching for a more aggressive military action than Pentagon officials had privately advocated.

Speaking from the White House, he said his goal was to cut off both the production and use of chemical weapons in Syria. And he said the three-nation coalition wouldn’t quit until “the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.”

Mr. Trump faced distractions throughout the week. He was infuriated by an FBI raid Monday of his personal lawyer’s files. He also bristled over a new tell-all book by former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey, casting him as a “slime ball” in a tweet sent Friday morning.

Still, aides said Mr. Trump stayed focused on Syria, asking for briefing materials and quizzing staff about how he should respond. He even sought advice on Syria from the lawyers defending him in the ongoing Russia investigation.

Damage Control

In anticipation of a U.S. strike, Syria and Russia in recent days have moved aircraft out of several air bases to other airfields.

Source: Institute for the Study of War. Control areas as of April 2.

One White House official said that inside the building, Syria was a consuming, “20-hours-a-day” preoccupation.

From the start, Mr. Trump was impatient for an armed strike.

On Wednesday, he warned Russia and Syria about an impending attack.

“Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’” he wrote. “You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”

The following day, French President Emmanuel Macron said France had proof that Mr. Assad used chemical weapons in the attack.

Facing criticism that he might have telegraphed his moves, Mr. Trump on Thursday walked back his warning.

“Never said when an attack on Syria would take place,” he said in a tweet. “Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”

U.S. and Allies Strike Syria

The U.S., the U.K. and France launched airstrikes against sites associated with Syria’s chemical-weapons capabilities.

A Syrian soldier films the damage after a research center was attacked by U.S., British and French military strikes to punish President Bashar al-Assad for a suspected chemical attack against civilians.

Hassan Ammar/Associated Press

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Mr. Mattis took a more cautious approach.

Over the past two days, the Pentagon had two opportunities to launch attacks against Syria, but Mr. Mattis argued successfully to halt them, according to U.S. and defense officials.

The military had scheduled potential windows for the strikes, including one Thursday night, the U.S. and defense officials said. Mr. Mattis was able to cancel them out of concerns that anything other than a “show strike” risked broader escalation with the Russians in particular, these defense officials said.

Emboldening Mr. Trump was John Bolton, a hawkish national security adviser in his first week on the job.

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Footage released by Douma Revolution show patients being treated at a hospital in Syria after an alleged chemical weapons attack. Viewer discretion is advised. PHOTO: SYRIA CIVIL DEFENCE/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Mr. Bolton favored a “ruinous” attack that would cripple some part of Mr. Assad’s government and national infrastructure, according to a person familiar with his thinking. Mr. Bolton didn’t want a reprise of the U.S.’s 2017 attack on Syria, hitting an airfield that could be easily repaired.

When Mr. Trump delivered his speech from the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room on Friday night, only two advisers were present: Press secretary Sarah Sanders and Mr. Bolton, who stared down at the two-page text of the speech, a gel pen in hand.

The president sounded a fatalistic note about Russia and Iran.

“Hopefully, someday, we’ll get along with Russia, and maybe even Iran,” Mr. Trump said. “But maybe not.”

—Michael C. Bender contributed to this article.

Write to Peter Nicholas at [email protected], Gordon Lubold at [email protected] and Dion Nissenbaum at [email protected]

Appeared in the April 14, 2018, print edition as 'Pentagon Urges Caution on Syria Strike.'