Just days after signaling that the United States was open to Syrian President Bashar Assad staying in power, the Trump administration on Wednesday left it unclear whether that is still U.S. policy or whether something more bellicose is now being considered after a suspected chemical attack left dozens dead.
President Donald Trump said he had been deeply affected by the images of victims in the attack, especially those of children, and that the alleged use of chemical weapons “crossed many, many lines, beyond a red line.”
But he didn’t say what that meant, and officials at the Pentagon and elsewhere in Washington declined to venture a guess.
The death toll from the suspected chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria rose to 72 civilians, including 20 children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.
“I will tell you it’s already happened that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” Trump said during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House on Wednesday with Jordan’s King Abdullah II. “What happened yesterday is unacceptable to me.”
He repeated his criticism of President Barack Obama’s “blank threat” in response to the crisis in Syria, saying the previous administration “had a responsibility to solve the crisis a long time ago.”
When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal . . . that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line, many many lines.
President Donald Trump
But he stopped short of saying what, if anything, he would do differently.
His ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, was more forceful, delivering a blistering indictment of Assad and Russia, and threatening “our own action” if the U.N. doesn’t respond. Trump did not mention Russia at all.
“How many more children have to die before Russia cares?” Haley asked at an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, holding up pictures of Syrian victims. She accused Moscow, which remains a key ally of Assad, of being complicit in the deaths if they choose to “close their eyes to this barbarity.”
“When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action,” Haley said. Like Trump, she did not elaborate what it would look like if the U.S. follows through on the threat to intervene.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been largely silent about the attack. After ignoring reporters’ questions during the day, he denounced Assad’s “brutal, unabashed barbarism” in a statement late Tuesday.
“Anyone who uses chemical weapons to attack his own people shows a fundamental disregard for human decency and must be held accountable,” he said.
Yet on a visit to Turkey last week, Tillerson seemed to signal a significant shift in Syria policy when he said the “longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.” His predecessor, John Kerry, and Obama had repeatedly called for Assad to step down. Haley also indicated last week that Assad’s removal was no longer a priority for the U.S., a stance that would put the U.S. at odds with its European allies.
“Objectively, I simply don’t see how Bashar al Assad can remain in charge after what he has already done,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said on Wednesday.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said the attack “should not be tolerated” during a visit with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi at the Pentagon on Wednesday.
Asked who was responsible for the attack, he said, “We’ll sort that out.”
Assad believes – and, sadly, he may be right – that he can gas his people with sarin, kill children, kill innocent civilians, people will complain, there’ll be a meeting at the U.N. Security Council, and then life will go on and he’ll stay in power.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Twice on Wednesday, Trump said only, “You will see,” when asked about his Syria policy.
Lawmakers from the president’s own party said the mixed messages had emboldened Assad.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told a Tampa-area radio station Wednesday that Tillerson’s remarks about Assad’s future had played a role in the attack.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a few days later we see this,” Rubio said on the “AM Tampa Bay” show. “Assad believes – and, sadly, he may be right – that he can gas his people with sarin, kill children, kill innocent civilians, people will complain, there’ll be a meeting at the U.N. Security Council, and then life will go on and he’ll stay in power. I hate to say this, I think he’s gonna get away with it again.”
On Tuesday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he was certain that Assad’s regime had been “encouraged to know that the United States is withdrawing” from the conflict.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the U.S. response to the alleged chemical attack was “the biggest test yet of the Trump presidency.”
“The president has an opportunity to punish Assad in a way that President Obama never would,” he said in a statement Wednesday. “This is the moment for President Trump to prove to everyone that when it comes to foreign policy and standing up to dictators, he is not President Obama.”
The Syrian government was accused of firing rockets filled with sarin gas at the suburbs of Damascus in August 2013, killing at least 400 people and perhaps hundreds more. After initially planning to retaliate by striking targets inside Syria, the Obama administration backed off the plan after many allies, as well as Congress, did not seem eager for the U.S. to intervene. Instead, the U.S. and Russia reached an agreement to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapon supplies.
The U.S. sees yesterday’s attack as a disgrace at the highest level – an assurance that humanity means nothing to the Syrian government.
Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations
Trump was among those urging Obama not to attack in 2013.
“President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your ‘powder’ for another (and more important) day!” he tweeted as the Obama administration weighed possible U.S. responses.
The deputy Russian envoy to the U.N., Vladimir Safronkov, claimed on Wednesday that a Syrian regime airstrike on an opposition warehouse had hit a rebel chemical weapons facility. The claim was disputed by some chemical weapons experts, who said it would be impossible for sarin to spread after such a bombing.
The World Health Organization said Wednesday that some of the victims showed signs “consistent with exposure to organophosphorus chemicals, a category of chemicals that includes nerve agents.” A medical team on the scene with Doctors Without Borders also said in a statement Wednesday that the symptoms they encountered looked like “exposure to a neurotoxic agent such as sarin gas.”
In the aftermath of the attack Tuesday, doctors on the ground posted videos showing patients with “non-reactive pinpoint pupils,” which they say is evidence that the attack was not chlorine and could only be sarin or a similar deadly agent. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said it was “in the process of gathering and analyzing information from all available sources.”
Videos shared by people in the town and doctors at the scene appeared to show victims choking, foaming at the mouth and convulsing as rescue workers hosed them down.
Since the civil conflict began in 2011, an estimated 400,000 Syrians have been killed, according to the United Nations.
“This is the most complex and the most violent conflict in our times,” European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in Brussels on Wednesday. “No regional, no global power has the strength to solve it alone.”