US defense secretary claims Syria 'dispersed' aircraft after Tomahawk airstrike

TEL AVIV, Israel — In the first visit to Israel by a member of U.S. President Donald Trump's Cabinet, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the nuclear deal between world powers and Iran "still stands" and that Iran, as recently certified by the State Department, "appears to be living up to their part" of the deal.

Nevertheless, Mattis said all of that "in no way mitigates against or excuses" other problematic activities by Tehran, including its support for terror; its proxy wars throughout the region; and its unabated actions to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power.

In a joint news conference Friday at the Israeli Defense Ministry, Mattis reiterated that the U.S. is a signatory to a deal that "continues to be in force" and that all other issues, including Iranian-generated "mayhem, chaos and murder" in the region are issues that are separate and distinct from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

Mattis' remarks came just moments after his host, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, called for "more pressure and more sanctions" on the Iranian regime — something that Tehran and other world capitals warn would cast the U.S. as a violator of the international accord. 

When asked about Israel's desire to have the Trump administration amend or scuttle the JCPOA — as repeatedly promised during the election campaign — Liberman at first said: "We're not in a position to give advice to an American administration." He then proceeded to note: "Of course, we're happy to see a new policy review and a new approach."

Liberman lauded the Trump administration for achievements thus far, particularly with regard to the Tomahawk cruise missile strike against Syrian air assets. "I think what we've seen in the last days sends a very clear and strong message regarding the Iranian regime. And we're really satisfied, and we have enough patience to wait for concrete steps," he said.

As for Syria, Mattis thanked Liberman for being among the first to praise the recent, punitive action against Assad for use of chemical weapons and warned that Assad "would be ill-advised to try to use any again." In direct reference to Israel's support for the Syrian strike, Mattis said: "The depth of our relationship was clear following the U.S. strike in Syria, when Israel immediately expressed its strong support for our action to uphold the longstanding, international prohibition against the use of chemical weapons."

In response to a question, Mattis said Assad "in recent days" has dispersed his aircraft in attempts to spare them from a prospective follow-on U.S. attack. He stopped short, however, of confirming that the aircraft are now under the protection and air-defense cover of the Russian air base in Latakia. "No doubt they have dispersed their aircraft in recent days," Mattis said.

Following the Mattis-Liberman meeting in Tel Aviv, the Pentagon chief traveled to Jerusalem for a tête-à-tête with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In a statement published by Netanyahu's office, the Israeli leader noted that in Israel, "we sense a great change in the direction of American policy."

According to the statement, Netanyahu said the "clear and forthright words" on Iran coming from Mattis and the "very strong and forthright words" and deeds on the part of Trump "is a welcome change, a strategic change of American leadership and American policy."

Netanyahu's office did not publish a detailed response from Mattis.

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