US Defence Secretary Mattis denies report that he urged Trump to seek lawmakers' approval for Syria strike

The New York Times said US Defence Secretary James Mattis (pictured) recommended President Trump get approval from lawmakers before launching cruise missiles into Syria.
The New York Times said US Defence Secretary James Mattis (pictured) recommended President Trump get approval from lawmakers before launching cruise missiles into Syria.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US Defence Secretary James Mattis on Wednesday (April 18) disputed a report saying he had unsuccessfully urged President Donald Trump to seek congressional approval ahead of last week's air strikes in Syria.

Citing anonymous military and administration officials, The New York Times said General Mattis had recommended Mr Trump get approval from lawmakers before launching Friday's cruise missile barrage against three targets the Pentagon said were tied to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons programme.

"I have no idea where that story came from," Gen Mattis told reporters as he greeted Qatar's Defence Minister, Mr Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah, at the Pentagon.

"I found nothing in it that I could recall from my own last week's activities."

Chemical weapons inspectors are waiting to go into Douma, near Damascus, to probe allegations of a chemical gas attack on April 7 that prompted last week's US-led response.

Gen Mattis said the regime has previously used delays after such an attack to "try to clean up the evidence before the investigation team gets in. So it's unfortunate they were delayed."

Following the deadly Douma incident, Mr Trump tweeted there would be a "big price to pay" after and promised missiles would be coming.

His remarks virtually ensured a response to the alleged chemical attack, even though many US lawmakers have expressed reservations over further military engagement in Syria unless Mr Trump can articulate a long-term strategy for the country.

A Pentagon official told AFP that there was no debate at the White House, and that "everyone" agreed Mr Trump had the authority needed to launch the strikes.

Later on Wednesday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders denied The New York Times story and said Mr Trump "appropriately ordered the strikes under his constitutional authorities".

In the days since the US-led strikes, which also saw British and French jets launch missiles, debate in Washington has continued about whether Mr Trump has the legal authority to conduct strikes against the Syrian regime.

On Monday, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a Bill that would update war powers that first were passed in the days after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

US forces have largely been operating under this so-called AUMF (Authorisation for Use of Military Force), even though the Pentagon's mission has grown far beyond what was envisioned in the early days of hunting Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Since 2001, presidents George W. Bush, Mr Barack Obama and now Mr Trump have relied on the authorities, along with a subsequent AUMF in 2002, as the basis for operations against armed Islamist groups.

One of the Bill's authors, Republican Senator Todd Young, said it "recognises the unique nature of the Islamist terrorist threat, while also recognising that Congress must exercise robust oversight".

Former president Barack Obama faced sharp criticism when he tried and failed to have Congress approve a plan to attack Mr Assad after the Syrian leader crossed Mr Obama's "red line" and used chemical weapons in 2013.