Trump says Syria gas attack changed his mind about Assad, and it ‘goes beyond red line’
US President Donald Trump accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government of going “beyond a red line” with a poison gas attack on civilians and said his attitude toward Syria and Assad had changed, but gave no indication of how he would respond.
Trump said the attack, which killed at least 70 people, many of them children, “crosses many, many lines”, an allusion to his predecessor Barack Obama’s threat to topple Assad with air strikes if he used such weapons. His accusations against Assad put him directly at odds with Moscow, the Syrian’s president principal backer.
“I will tell you, what happened yesterday is unacceptable to me,” Trump told reporters at a news conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Wednesday.
“And I will tell you, it’s already happened that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” though when asked at an earlier meeting whether he was formulating a new policy on Syria, Trump said: “You’ll see.”
Vice-President Mike Pence, when asked whether it was time to renew the call for Assad to be ousted and safe zones be established, told Fox News: “But let me be clear, all options are on the table,” without elaborating.
US officials rejected Russia’s assertion that Syrian rebels were to blame for the attack.
Trump’s comments, which came just a few days after Washington said it was no longer focused on making Assad leave power, suggested a clash between the Kremlin and Trump’s White House after initial signals of warmer ties. Trump did not mention Russia in his comments on Wednesday but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said it was time for Russia to think carefully about its support for Assad.
Pence said the time had come for Moscow to “keep the word that they made to see to the elimination of chemical weapons so that they no longer threaten the people in that country.”
Western countries, including the United States, blamed Assad’s armed forces for the worst chemical attack in Syria for more than four years.
US intelligence officials, based on a preliminary assessment, said the deaths were most likely caused by sarin nerve gas dropped by Syrian aircraft on the town of Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday. A senior State Department official said Washington had not yet ascertained it was sarin.
Moscow offered an alternative explanation that would shield Assad: that the poison gas belonged to rebels and had leaked from an insurgent weapons depot hit by Syrian bombs.
A senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Russian explanation was not credible. “We don’t believe it,” the official said.
The United States, Britain and France have proposed a draft UN Security Council resolution that would condemn the attack; the Russian Foreign Ministry called it “unacceptable” and said it was based on “fake information”.
Trump described the attack as “horrible” and “unspeakable.” He faulted Obama for failing to carry through on his “red line” threat and when asked if he had responsibility to respond to the attack, said: “I now have responsibility”.
The new incident means Trump is faced with same dilemma that faced his predecessor: whether to openly challenge Moscow and risk deep involvement in a Middle East war by seeking to punish Assad for using banned weapons, or compromise and accept the Syrian leader remaining in power at the risk of looking weak.
Video of the apparent aftermath of the attack, uploaded to social media, showed civilians sprawled on the ground, some in convulsions, others lifeless. Rescue workers hose down the limp bodies of small children, trying to wash away chemicals. People wail and pound on the chests of victims.
The charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said one of its hospitals in Syria had treated patients “with symptoms - dilated pupils, muscle spasms, involuntary defecation - consistent with exposure to neuro-toxic agents such as sarin”. The World Health Organization also said the symptoms were consistent with exposure to a nerve agent.
“We’re talking about war crimes,” French UN Ambassador Francois Delattre told reporters in New York.
The chemical attack in Idlib province, one of the last major strongholds of rebels, who have fought since 2011 to topple Assad, complicates diplomatic efforts to end a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven half of Syrians from their homes.
Over the past several months, Western countries, including the United States, had been quietly dropping their demands that Assad leave power in any deal to end the war, accepting that the rebels no longer had the capability to topple him by force.
The use of banned chemical weapons would make it harder for the international community to sign off on any peace deal that does not remove him. Britain and France on Wednesday renewed their call for Assad to leave power.