WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG, AFP, REUTERS, XINHUA) - President Donald Trump said he plans to make major decisions on Syria over the next 24 to 48 hours, after a suspected chemical weapons attack by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime over the weekend.
Mr Trump told reporters at the White House on Monday (April 9) that the attack was “barbaric” and can’t be allowed to happen again.
“If it’s the Russians, if it’s Syria, if it’s Iran, if it’s all of them together, we’ll figure it out,” Mr Trump said. No response is off the table, he said.
“It was an atrocious attack. Mr Trump said. “This is about humanity. We’re talking about humanity. It can’t be allowed to happen,” he said.
Asked if Russian President Vladimir Putin bore any responsibility for the attack, Mr Trump said, “He may, yeah, he may. And if he does it’s going to be very tough, very tough.”
The Syrian government and its ally Russia have denied involvement in the attack.
Initial US assessments have been unable to determine conclusively what materials were used in the attack and could not say with certainty that Mr Assad’s government forces were behind it.
Mr Trump said, however, that Washington was “getting more clarity” on who was responsible for the attack.
International bodies led by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) were trying to establish exactly what happened in Douma, a rebel-held town in the eastern Ghouta district.
The US leader met with his Cabinet and then dined with top generals, telling reporters, “We have a lot of options militarily and we’ll be letting you know pretty soon... probably after the fact.”
The White House National Security Council’s principals committee held a meeting earlier in the morning to discuss the chemical weapons attack, a person familiar with the matter said.
Russia blamed Israel for the raid, Israel hewed to its customary no-comment policy and it wasn’t immediately clear whether the facility had a link to the chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb.
Mr Trump was speaking after a stormy emergency session on the UN Security Council in New York, where Russia’s ambassador Vassily Nebenzia rejected a US call for the world body to set up a probe to identify the perpetrators of the suspected attack in Douma.
But US ambassador Nikki Haley warned the United States would act regardless of the outcome of the UN debate, and allies France and Britain had already backed joint action in response to what rescuers called a “poisonous chlorine gas attack” late on Saturday.
Ms Haley urged the UN Security Council to take action, but warned that the United States was ready to respond.
“We have reached the moment when the world must see justice done,” Ms Haley said.
“History will record this as the moment when the Security Council either discharged its duty or demonstrated its utter and complete failure to protect the people of Syria,” she added.
“Either way, the United States will respond.”
Russian Ambassador Nebenzia said the US-drafted measure “contains some unacceptable elements, which make it worse” than a previous US proposal put forward in March.
“From what we hear now, I am afraid they are looking for a military option, which is very, very dangerous,” he told reporters following an emergency council meeting.
At the council meeting, Mr Nebenzia warned that a US military strike against Syria could have “grave repercussions” and stressed that the use of chlorine or sarin had not been confirmed in the attack.
The Russian ambassador said Moscow had told the United States that it would not allow its forces on the ground in Syria to be put at risk.
“Armed force under mendacious pretext against Syria, where, at the request of the legitimate government of a country, Russian troops have been deployed, could lead to grave repercussions,” Mr Nebenzia said.
It was unclear when the proposed US measure would come up for a vote at the council, but diplomats said it could be as early as Tuesday.
A draft resolution requires nine votes to be adopted and no vetoes from the five permanent members – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.
Russia and Syria both offered during the UN Security Council meeting on Monday to take OPCW investigators to Douma.
The OPCW did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But weapons inspectors are not expected to go to Syria after being attacked twice while tying to get to the sites of chemical weapons attacks since 2013.
Instead, they have in recent investigations gathered blood samples from victims and interviewed witnesses outside Syria.
Mr Trump wasn’t at the NSC meeting on Monday, but his top national security aides participated, including new National Security Adviser John Bolton, said the person who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Defence Secretary James Mattis said he wouldn’t “rule out anything right now” when asked by reporters on Monday morning whether the US was considering military actions against Syria, including an air strike.
The United States is weighing a multinational military response, US officials told Reuters on Monday, as experts listed several key facilities that could be viable targets.
Experts on Syria’s war cited France and perhaps even Britain and Middle East allies as potential partners in any US military operation, which would aim to discourage future chemical weapons use in Syria’s brutal civil war.
British UN Ambassador Karen Pierce told reporters that Britain “would prefer to start with a proper investigation”, but that all options were on the table and London was in close contact with its US and French allies.
“The images, especially of suffering children, have shocked the conscience of the entire civilised world,” White House spokesman Sarah Sanders said. “Sadly, these actions are consistent with Assad’s established pattern of chemical weapons use.”
Experts speculated that the retaliatory strikes, should they happen, would likely focus on facilities linked to past reports of Syrian chemical weapons attacks.
The stakes are higher for any new US military action, with Mr Trump explicitly mentioning Iran and Russia in connection with the weekend attack.
They cited potential strikes against bases including Dumayr air base, which is home to Syrian Mi-8 helicopters and has been linked in social media to the strike in Douma.
One US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, was unaware of any decision to go ahead with a strike, but said any plans for a possible attack could focus on targets associated with Syria’s chemical weapons programme while seeking to avoid anything that could spread poisonous fallout in civilian areas.
A more provocative strike could target Humaymim Airfield in North-west Syria, which was singled out by the White House in a March 4 statement that identified it as the starting point for bombing missions by Russian military aircraft in Damascus and Eastern Ghouta.
Mr Trump warned on Sunday of a “big price to pay” in response to reports of a chemical attack outside Syria’s capital, days after he said he wanted to quickly end the US military presence in the war-torn Middle East country.
Mr Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed in a phone call on Sunday to “coordinate a strong, joint response” to the suspected attack, according to a White House statement on the call.
The French and US presidents held fresh talks about the alleged chemical attack on Syrian civilians on Monday and expressed a desire for a “firm response” from the international community, the Elysee Palace said.
In their second discussion in two days about Saturday’s suspected chemical attack, Mr Macron and Mr Trump “reiterated their desire for a firm response from the international community to these new violations of the chemical weapons ban”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that Russia will not accept "provocation and speculation" around the suspected chemical weapons attack.
According to a Kremlin statement, Mr Putin made the remarks during a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"The two leaders discussed the situation in Syria, including the chemical attack allegations made by several western states against the Syrian government. It is unacceptable to use it as an opportunity for provocation and speculation,’ the statement read.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday that the US and their allies are using provocation in order to maintain their presence in Syria.
"The coalition led by the US does not intend to leave Syria to others. US President Donald Trump said they plan to consolidate their positions there for a very long time," Mr Lavrov told at a press conference.
Mr Lavrov recalled that Russia and Syria had repeatedly warned that a serious provocation was being prepared in Syria with the aim of accusing the Syrian government of using toxic agents against civilians.
Russia supported an "honest" investigation of the incident since the Russian military and Syrian Red Crescent representatives who visited the site of the alleged attack did not find any traces of chemicals.
Mr Lavrov said the attack on a Syrian military airfield also required an investigation. He stopped short of attributing the attack to any party. "There were a lot of reports on who were flying over there," he said.
Rescue workers and activists said dozens died in the chemical assault amid renewed fire by Mr Assad’s government on a rebel stronghold near Damascus.
The use of chemical weapons in April 2017 provoked a US missile strike, the first direct American hit on Mr Assad’s regime since the conflict in Syria began in March 2011.
While Mr Trump has said he wants US troops out of Syria “very soon”, he posted tweets on Sunday condemning the attack and saying Russian President Putin and Iran “are responsible for backing Animal Assad.”
The episode thrust the US and Russia into a new confrontation, with Moscow warning against any military strike and Washington calling for an immediate international response.
“Big price to pay,” Mr Trump said on Twitter. “Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!”
Syria’s official Sana news agency denied the reports, saying the rapidly advancing army “doesn’t need to use any chemical weapons as the media channels that support the terrorists are fabricating.” It cited an official it didn’t identify.
Sana also reported that there was an attack on a Syrian air base early on Monday. Russia said two Israeli planes attacked the Al Tiyas, or T-4, military base from Lebanese airspace before dawn.
Three missiles hit their targets and five others were shot down by Syrian forces, the Russian Defence Ministry said in a statement.
It isn’t clear whether the attack was in response to the suspected chemical weapons use. The T-4 base is the same facility the Israeli military said Iran used on Feb 10 to launch a drone that penetrated Israeli air space.
Russia, whose military backing of Mr Assad helped turn the course of the war in his favour, denied that Syrian government forces deployed chemical weapons in Douma, according to the Tass news service, which cited Major General Yuri Yevtushenko.
Russia plans to send specialists to analyse the scene once militants are expelled from the area, and said the data will refute claims of chemical use, Tass reported.
The Foreign Ministry in Moscow warned that any foreign military strike against Syria over “fabricated” reports of chemical warfare may lead to the “gravest consequences”.