Trump con­demns chem­i­cal at­tack

Blames Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion for re­fusal to en­force ‘red line’

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CARLO MUNOZ AND TOM HOW­ELL JR.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion joined gov­ern­ments around the world in con­demn­ing the regime of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad for a hor­rific chem­i­cal weapons at­tack Tues­day that killed at least 58 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 11 chil­dren, say­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion shared some of the blame for re­fus­ing to en­force its “red line” against chem­i­cal weapons at­tacks by Mr. As­sad’s forces.

The White House and State De­part­ment is­sued strong con­dem­na­tions. Sec­re­tary of State Rex W. Tiller­son said in a state­ment that the strike on the re­bel­held town of Khan Sheikhoun in north­ern Syria was em­blem­atic of Mr. As­sad’s “brutal, un­abashed bar­barism.”

One State De­part­ment of­fi­cial char­ac­ter­ized the at­tack as a bla­tant war crime, but nei­ther Pres­i­dent Trump nor Mr. Tiller­son de­liv­ered his state­ment in per­son.

The at­tack comes just days af­ter the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion sig­naled that it was no longer de­mand­ing the ouster of Mr. As­sad, who is backed by Rus­sia and Iran, as a pre­con­di­tion for any deal to end the coun­try’s brutal 6-yearold civil war.

The Syr­ian For­eign Min­istry, which claims Da­m­as­cus

sur­ren­dered its en­tire chem­i­cal arse­nal as part of a Rus­sia-bro­kered deal in 2014, de­nied that the gov­ern­ment was be­hind the aerial strike.

The U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil is set to hold an emer­gency meet­ing to dis­cuss the at­tack Wed­nes­day morn­ing.

Videos from the scene showed vol­un­teer medics us­ing fire hoses to wash the chem­i­cals from vic­tims’ bod­ies, The As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported. Haunt­ing im­ages of life­less chil­dren piled in heaps re­flected the mag­ni­tude of the at­tack, which was rem­i­nis­cent of a 2013 chem­i­cal as­sault that left hun­dreds dead.

Rus­sia and China ve­toed a Western­backed res­o­lu­tion at the United Na­tions on Feb. 28 aimed at hold­ing the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment ac­count­able for three at­tacks in­volv­ing chlo­rine gas.

Dr. Ab­dulHai Ten­nari, a pul­mo­nolo­gist who treated dozens of vic­tims Tues­day, told re­porters that the at­tack ap­peared to be more se­ri­ous than chlo­rine.

Con­gres­sional law­mak­ers and sev­eral for­eign lead­ers saw the at­tack as the fi­nal straw for the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity’s tol­er­ance of the Syr­ian regime and called for Mr. As­sad’s ouster. But Mr. Tiller­son de­manded only that Rus­sia and Iran put pres­sure on Da­m­as­cus as it moves to quash anti-gov­ern­ment forces.

Mr. Trump, who did not men­tion the in­ci­dent in two pub­lic events, re­port­edly re­ceived news of the early-morn­ing gas at­tack dur­ing a tele­con­fer­ence with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin.

White House press sec­re­tary Sean Spicer said the at­tack “against in­no­cent peo­ple, in­clud­ing women and chil­dren, is rep­re­hen­si­ble. The United States stands with our al­lies across the globe to con­demn this in­tol­er­a­ble act.”

While the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is in­tent on abandoning Pres­i­dent Obama’s hands-off Syria poli­cies, seen by many as weak and in­ef­fec­tive, it has strug­gled to de­cide on a strat­egy to de­fine Mr. As­sad’s fu­ture role in his coun­try.

The at­tack marked the third time that As­sad regime forces used chem­i­cal weapons since a 2014 pact with Rus­sia to dis­man­tle the chem­i­cal stock­piles. All three at­tacks, in­clud­ing Tues­day’s strike, were fo­cused on the anti-As­sad en­clave of Idlib in north­ern Syria.

A se­nior Se­nate Demo­crat said the at­tack was a test of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­solve and as­serted that Mr. As­sad’s forces have scored strik­ing gains in re­cent months.

“Make no mis­take: The As­sad regime is de­lib­er­ately test­ing the new ad­min­is­tra­tion and its re­solve,” said a state­ment by Sen. Ben­jamin L. Cardin of Mary­land, the rank­ing Demo­crat on the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee. “In the ab­sence of a com­pre­hen­sive pol­icy for Syria, we have been left with trou­bling state­ments from ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials about As­sad’s role in Syria’s fu­ture and blam­ing the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

But Sen. Tom Cot­ton, Arkansas Repub­li­can, drew a di­rect line be­tween Mr. Obama’s ill-fated red line and Mr. As­sad’s grow­ing sense of im­punity in pur­su­ing his en­e­mies.

De­nounc­ing Mr. Obama’s “six years of weak­ness and ir­res­o­lu­tion,” Mr. Cot­ton said that “it is time for a stronger Syria pol­icy, one that holds the As­sad gov­ern­ment, Rus­sia and Iran ac­count­able for their bru­tal­ity. And that pol­icy be­gins with de­mand­ing As­sad’s de­par­ture from Syria.”

Rus­sia has con­ducted airstrikes in sup­port of its Syr­ian ally, but both Moscow and Da­m­as­cus strongly de­nied any in­volve­ment in the chem­i­cal at­tack. Syr­ian law­maker Sharif Sha­hada told Ira­nian state chan­nel Press TV that the chem­i­cal agents iden­ti­fied in the at­tack may have been part of a rebel weapons cache det­o­nated by Syr­ian airstrikes in the area.

Past mis­takes

Crit­ics have long main­tained that Mr. Obama’s dec­la­ra­tion of a red line in 2012, and his un­will­ing­ness to au­tho­rize U.S. mil­i­tary strikes af­ter a deadly chem­i­cal at­tack by regime forces the fol­low­ing year, only em­bold­ened Mr. As­sad.

If Mr. Obama’s red line “had been acted upon, I feel we would be in a very dif­fer­ent place,” said Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Corker, Ten­nessee Repub­li­can.

Mil­i­tary ac­tion, which the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion can­celed at the last minute, “would have put As­sad on his heels” and changed the dy­namic of the con­flict, Mr. Corker said. Mr. Obama said he felt he needed con­gres­sional au­tho­riza­tion for an at­tack, and the sur­prise Rus­sian ini­tia­tive to end Syria’s chem­i­cal weapons pro­gram made the U.S. ef­fort moot.

Mr. Spicer also placed much of the blame squarely on Mr. Obama and “the past ad­min­is­tra­tion’s weak­ness and ir­res­o­lu­tion” to­ward the As­sad regime. But he quickly backpedaled when asked if Mr. As­sad’s days were num­bered in Syria un­der Mr. Trump.

“I think we had op­por­tu­ni­ties in the past sev­eral years to look at regime change. I think … the land­scape [was] fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent than it is today,” Mr. Spicer said.

U.S. Am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions Nikki Ha­ley con­firmed that the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil would hold a rare open ses­sion this week on Syria’s chem­i­cal weapons use. Ms. Ha­ley broke ranks with Mr. Tiller­son over the week­end, say­ing Mr. As­sad can­not be al­lowed to re­tain power in the coun­try — a key de­mand of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Syr­ian pol­icy.

“Our goal is we want to bring As­sad to jus­tice. We want them to pay for the crimes that he’s done,” she said Sun­day dur­ing an in­ter­view with ABC News.

Mr. Spicer played down any no­tion of dis­sent or con­fu­sion re­gard­ing Syria. He noted that Mr. Tiller­son and Ms. Ha­ley’s state­ments in­di­cate “the re­al­ity of the sit­u­a­tion, po­lit­i­cally speak­ing.”

“I think we would look like, to some de­gree, rather silly not ac­knowl­edg­ing the po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties that ex­ist in Syria” and the com­pli­ca­tions they pose to U.S. diplo­macy.

The State De­part­ment said Moscow and Tehran, Mr. As­sad’s key back­ers, face more pres­sure to act af­ter the at­tack.

“Rus­sia and Iran are the self-pro­claimed guar­an­tors for the be­hav­iors of this regime,” said a se­nior State De­part­ment of­fi­cial, not­ing the key roles of both coun­tries in bro­ker­ing a Syr­ian cease-fire this year and ini­ti­at­ing peace talks. “They will have a lot to an­swer for. … If it is what it looks like, it is a war crime.”

Pen­tagon of­fi­cials de­clined to com­ment on the at­tack or its po­ten­tial im­pact on U.S.-backed op­er­a­tions against the Is­lamic State group in Syria, re­fer­ring all queries to the State De­part­ment.

The prov­ince of Idlib, which is al­most en­tirely con­trolled by the op­po­si­tion, is home to some 900,000 dis­placed Syr­i­ans, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions. Rebels and op­po­si­tion of­fi­cials have ex­pressed con­cern that the gov­ern­ment is plan­ning to mount a con­cen­trated at­tack on the crowded prov­ince, the AP re­ported.

Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan also de­nounced the at­tack, say­ing the strike could de­rail on­go­ing peace talks be­tween Da­m­as­cus and anti-gov­ern­ment fac­tions in Syria. The next round of talks, led by Rus­sian, Ira­nian and Turk­ish diplo­mats, is slated for next month in As­tana, Kaza­khstan.

“This crime puts into ques­tion the en­tire peace process,” said Mo­ham­mad Sabra, who is lead­ing the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion del­e­ga­tion dur­ing the peace talks. “If the U.N. is un­able to pre­vent the regime to com­mit such crimes, what would you do to achieve a po­lit­i­cal process with a view to a tran­si­tion?” he told Agence France-Presse.

U.S. diplo­mats are par­tic­i­pat­ing in talks in an ad­vi­sory role in those talks, but Wash­ing­ton does hold any sway over forces on the ground in­volved in the Syr­ian civil war, the State De­part­ment of­fi­cial said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

THIRD STRIKE: A Syr­ian man car­ries the vic­tim of a chem­i­cal at­tack that op­po­si­tion ac­tivists de­scribed as among the worst in the coun­try’s 6-year-old war. It marked the third time that gov­ern­ment forces used chem­i­cal weapons since a 2014 pact with Rus­sia to dis­man­tle stock­piles.

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