"On a strategic level, it's how do we keep this from escalating out of control", he said.
Mattis' remarks at a House Armed Services Committee hearing followed a series of Trump tweets this week that initially indicated he was committed to bombing Syria but later suggested he was awaiting further advice and assessment.
Mattis spoke before a House Armed Services Committee hearing a day after Trump taunted Russian Federation, warning of an attack in Syria.
"They can only say that they found evidence or did not, and as each day goes by - as you know, it's a non-persistent gas, so it becomes more and more hard to confirm it", Mattis said.
He went on to talk about Syrian refugees and the atrocities they have had to endure during the civil war, commenting that he has never seen refugees more traumatized. "It is to drive this to a UN-brokered peace but, at the same time, keep our foot on the neck of ISIS until we suffocate it".
"He wants Mattis to push the limits a little bit more", one White House official said. He continued that decisions will be "made fairly soon". That meant airstrikes, possibly in tandem with France and other allies that have expressed outrage at the alleged Syrian chemical attack, could be launched within hours of a presidential decision.
Any U.S. military strikes against Syria raise the possibility of a wider conflict with Russian Federation, which has backed the Syrian regime militarily and has troops and private contractors on the ground.
"I believe there was a chemical attack and we are looking for the actual evidence", Mattis said to Washington lawmakers, adding that he is trying to send inspectors to Syria "probably within the week". Other allies have been more cautious, but the United Kingdom government said Thursday the global community must "take action" against Syria to deter future use of chemical weapons. "Thereby, the use of sarin and chlorine is not confirmed".
"We have forces in the field and the use of chemical weapons in Syria is not something that we should assume that 'well, because he didn't use them on us this time, he wouldn't use them on us next time, '" Mattis told Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif.
The OPCW team is tasked with determining if a chemical attack took place, but not determining responsibility.
Earlier Thursday, Trump softened his rhetoric.
Mattis and Dunford opened the hearing by lauding recent efforts to boost the Pentagon's budget.
"Our role in Syria is the defeat of ISIS", he said.
"We know that there are only certain countries like Syria that have delivery mechanisms and have those types of weapons".
However, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., ranking Democrat on the committee, warned a soaring deficit is facing the United States as a result of an expanding budget and the military must prepare for tough questions on spending in the future. A recent Institute of International Strategic Studies report on the military balance in Syria shows that the United States and its allies would have a clear advantage.
"Until we have a more long-term strategy, until we have some idea where we're going in Syria and the Middle East, it seems unwise, to me, to start launching missiles", said Smith.
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