President Donald Trump said Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad might have to step down, as his defense officials spent Thursday discussing possible military options to punish the dictator for a suspected sarin gas attack this week against his own people.
“What Assad did is terrible,” Trump told reporters on a plane flight to Mar-a-Lago for meetings with the Chinese premier. “What happened in Syria is truly one of the egregious crimes and...it shouldn’t be allowed to happen.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said steps are already underway for organizing an international coalition to remove Assad.
“Assad’s role in the future is uncertain, clearly, and with the acts that he has taken, it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people,” Tillerson said at a Palm Beach, Florida news conference a week after hinting the U.S. could tolerate Assad staying in power. “The process by which Assad would leave is something that I think requires an international community effort—both to first defeat ISIS within Syria, to stabilize the Syrian country, to avoid further civil war, and then to work collectively with our partners around the world through a political process that would lead to Assad leaving.”
Trump refused to be drawn on what he might do to punish the Syrian for Tuesday's strike, but Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is with Trump, and senior defense officials at the Pentagon are discussing options, three U.S. officials told The Daily Beast.
“We're in the options business,” one of the officials said.
Targets being suggested include anything related to the Syrian regime's military. "Logical targets include aircraft, chemical plants, areas of production, storage and delivery of chemical weapons," and anything related to military communications or "command and control," one of the officials said, referring to the network by which Assad directs military action.
Ideas are being exchanged back and forth between the Pentagon and National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, for eventual consideration by Trump, the officials said.
The Pentagon is also laying out what Assad would have left after any such kinetic strike to retaliate against U.S and other coalition-friendly forces.
U.S officials have radar-derived intelligence confirming that Syrian regime aircraft dropped munitions on the town at the time of the attack in Idlib.
Officials believe it was "some kind of chemical but do not yet have high confidence that it was Sarin," one of the officals said. The second said their main source of information on the suspected sarin attack is images provided by the World Health Organization of the victims.
The U.S. could theoretically use the ISIS air-ops deconfliction channel with Russia in case of an operation, but it's too early to discuss that before the President has decided a course of action, one of the officials said.
It's up to the president and National Security Council to determine whether they have the authority for punitive strikes without requesting action by Congress, all of the officials said.
A third U.S. official involved in the discussions said they are looking at if/then variables like, if you strike X target and damage or limit Russian aircraft mobility or risk killing Russian or Iranian advisors on the ground, does that preclude a warming of relations with Russia and risk stepping up hostilities with Iran?
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive and evolving discussions. The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.