President Donald Trump spoke in the Cabinet Room of the White House last week at the start of a meeting with military leaders.
WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump deferred to his Pentagon chief’s caution and tempered his preference for a more robust attack on Syria over allegations it used deadly gas on civilians, the first hints at the direction of his revamped national-security team.
The decision late last week, detailed by people familiar with the process, marked the first substantive test of the group now that John Bolton is serving as Mr. Trump’s national security adviser.
After days of tense White House meetings, the president and his advisers agreed on one of the most restrained of the military-strike options crafted by the Pentagon: a powerful missile attack aimed at three targets meant to hobble the Syrian regime’s ability to use chemical weapons and deter President Bashar al-Assad from using them again.
The outcome was a sign of the sizable influence Defense Secretary Jim Mattis still wields in the reorganized national-security team. Faced with a push from the president for a muscular response to the alleged chemical-weapons attack that killed at least 43 people, Mr. Mattis presented the White House with three military options, according to the people familiar with the decision-making.
The most conservative option would have hit a narrow set of targets related to Syria’s chemical-weapons capabilities.
The second option proposed strikes on a broader set of Syrian regime targets, including suspected chemical-weapons research facilities and military command centers.
The most expansive proposal, which might have included strikes on Russian air defenses in Syria, was designed to cripple the regime’s military capabilities without touching Mr. Assad’s political machinery.
The most ambitious of the proposals was three times the size of the one eventually carried out by U.S., British and French forces.
Mr. Trump approved a hybrid plan that saw more than 100 advanced missiles fired at the three Syrian targets early Saturday. That action reflected a melding the first two options: modest missile strikes, but ones the Trump administration said delivered a decisive blow to Mr. Assad’s chemical-weapons capabilities.
While Mr. Trump pressed his team to also consider strikes on Russian and Iranian targets in Syria if necessary to get at the Assad regime’s military equipment, Mr. Mattis pushed back, those familiar with the decision-making said.
United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley had joined Mr. Trump in calling for more forceful response, while Mr. Mattis warned about the risks that a more expansive strike could trigger a dangerous response from Moscow and Tehran, according to the people.
Officials at the White House, Defense Department and U.N. didn’t respond to questions about the decision-making process.
Mr. Trump often expresses conflicting impulses on overseas entanglements—he remains eager to withdraw troops from the Middle East, for instance, but was adamant about a quick and forceful military response in Syria last week—and his newly assembled national-security team had been working together for less than a week before the bombing campaign was launched.
Mr. Bolton, a one-time U.N. ambassador and former Fox News commentator who has argued for military responses against Iran and North Korea, worked to forge a difficult compromise, the people familiar with the process said.
Conscious of his public image as someone quick to favor military action, Mr. Bolton pressed for what he considered a “ruinous” strike that would deliver a concrete blow to some part of Mr. Assad’s regime, but not the most aggressive options, according to one person familiar with his thinking.
Mr. Bolton knew the respect Mr. Trump had for Mr. Mattis, and he may have decided that it was wise to defer initially to the Pentagon chief after he started the job, according to the people familiar with the decision-making. When the two first met at the Pentagon a few weeks ago, Mr. Mattis jokingly told Mr. Bolton that he had heard he was “the devil incarnate,” a reputation the new national security chief understood followed him into the West Wing.
Mr. Bolton also realized that the most robust option might drag the U.S. more deeply into the conflict and force him to take responsibility for a greater U.S. role in the civil war, according to the people familiar with the decision-making. He felt that was too much for his first week on the job, they said.
On Sunday, the Trump administration followed up its military strike with an economic one. Ms. Haley said the U.S. would impose new sanctions on Russian companies selling Mr. Assad equipment that could be used to rebuild his chemical-weapons capabilities.
On Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said: “We are considering additional sanctions on Russia and a decision will be made in the near future.”
In Paris, meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron said Sunday he convinced Mr. Trump to not disengage from Syria and to limit airstrikes to chemical-weapons targets. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders didn’t address Mr. Macron’s comments directly, but said Mr. Trump “wants U.S. forces to come home as quickly as possible.”
The eventual U.S. decision was the work of a national-security team still taking shape. Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo has been nominated to become Mr. Trump’s second secretary of state, replacing Rex Tillerson, who was an ally of Mr. Mattis in previous administration national-security debates. Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel, nominated to replace Mr. Pompeo, is bracing for tough questions from senators about her role in overseeing harsh post-Sept. 11 interrogation techniques.
Like Mr. Bolton, Mr. Pompeo is also widely viewed as favoring an assertive foreign policy. When he appeared before senators last week for his confirmation hearing, Mr. Pompeo said his image as a military hawk was mistaken.
Still, Messrs. Bolton and Pompeo are aligned in wanting to take a more forceful approach toward Iran and North Korea, two of America’s most troubling adversaries.
Right before taking the job, Mr. Bolton wrote an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal in which he argued that North Korea posed an “imminent” threat to the U.S. and that the Trump administration had every right to launch a pre-emptive strike.
Mr. Mattis repeatedly clashed with Mr. Bolton’s predecessor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, over the administration’s approach to North Korea. The defense secretary, who has warned publicly about the risks posed by a military confrontation with North Korea, chafed against White House requests for aggressive military proposals against Pyongyang, according to U.S. officials.
The Trump administration is preparing for high-stakes talks with North Korea over its nuclear-weapons program, but a breakdown of that effort would likely heighten tensions in the volatile region.