Donald Trump

Chris Kleponis/Sipa USA

Trump Says Syria Attack 'Very Soon Or Not So Soon At All!'

April 12, 2018 - 6:01 pm

WASHINGTON (WCBS 880/CBS News/AP) -- President Donald Trump said Thursday that an attack on Syria could take place "very soon or not so soon at all," arguing he had never signaled the timing of retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack that he had suggested was imminent a day earlier.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats grilled Defense Secretary James Mattis on the legality and constitutionality of Trump ordering an attack on Syria without explicit authorization from Congress. Mattis insisted it would be justified as an act of self-defense; he insisted he could not talk about military plans because an attack "is not yet in the offing."

Mattis said the U.S. is still waiting for weapons inspectors to get into Syria within the week but they won't be able to prove who was behind the alleged attack.

"They can only say that they found evidence or did not and as each day goes by as you know it's a nonpersistent gas so it becomes more and more difficult to confirm it," Mattis said.

When asked about his concerns over a U.S. military response, Mattis said he does not want to cause more civilian casualties or further complicate an already dangerous situation with so many players in Syria, CBS News correspondent Cami McCormick reported.

"On a strategic level it's how do we keep this from escalating out of control?" Mattis said.

CBS News Military Analyst and retired Maj. Mike Lyons said if and when a strike goes ahead, it would likely come in the middle of the night. But he said caution must be taken.

“We’ve got to be careful on making sure that we prove that it does come from the Syrian government. I know the president of France claims that he’s got that proof,” Lyons said. But (Mattis) just said it’s not yet imminent, and I think we’ve got to let, you know, kind of cooler heads prevail; make sure any military strike is part of a longer-term strategy. We just, we learned last time, it’s just striking once. And not following up is not going to change his behavior.”

At stake in Syria is the potential for confrontation, if not outright conflict, between the U.S. and Russia, former Cold War foes whose relations have deteriorated in recent years over Moscow's intervention in Ukraine, its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and, most recently, its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Russian lawmakers have warned the United States that Moscow would view an airstrike on Syria as a war crime and that it could trigger a direct U.S-Russian military clash. Russia's ambassador to Lebanon said any missiles fired at Syria would be shot down and the launching sites targeted — a stark warning of a potential major confrontation.

Trump on Wednesday had warned Russia to "get ready" for a missile attack on its ally Syria. But on Thursday, Trump tweeted: "Never said when an attack on Syria would take place."

Mattis said the president's National Security Council would be meeting later Thursday to "take forward the various options" for Trump. He said the president has not yet decided whether military force would be part of a U.S. response in Syria.

Meanwhile Thursday, U.S. intelligence continued to report that symptoms related to last weekend's suspected chemical attack in Syria are consistent with mostly chlorine gas, according to a U.S. government source.

CBS News' national security correspondent David Martin reports that evidence includes blood and urine samples provided by hospitals and medical workers, according to the source.

U.S. intelligence reports that some victims of the attack have exhibited symptoms that are more consistent with exposure to a nerve agent, and that 42 people were killed and more than 500 injured in the attack, the source said.

Syrian opposition activists and medics have said that the suspected gas attack last week killed dozens of people in Douma, a town outside Syria's capital that was then controlled by Syrian rebels. Western powers are convinced a chemical attack was instigated by the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Syria and Russia have disputed such reports.

“If they find something, I think again, we have that UN moment; that Cuban Missile Crisis moment where you can show that the Assad regime uses this kind of chemicals, and then the rest of the world should be as outraged as they’ve been a signatory to the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons out there,” Lyons said.

One key to determining who was responsible for the alleged attack, Lyons said, is determining whether the canisters used were government military grade versus something that was improvised and put together.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said Thursday a special fact-finding mission is on its way to Syria and will start investigating the suspected chemical attack there as of Saturday. The OPCW team will be seeking to find out if and what kind of chemicals were used in the attack, the organization -- based in the Netherlands -- said in a statement.

(Copyright 2018 WCBS 880. CBS News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.)