Syria at­tack crosses too many lines for Trump

Of­fi­cials want re­sponse to be ac­tion, not talk

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CARLO MUNOZ AND S.A. MILLER

Say­ing a deadly chem­i­cal weapons at­tack on a town held by Syr­ian rebels “crossed a lot of lines for me,” Pres­i­dent Trump hinted Wed­nes­day that he was pre­par­ing a much harder line against the regime of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad but de­clined to of­fer specifics on how the U.S. mil­i­tary might re­spond.

Syr­ian diplo­mats and their Rus­sian coun­ter­parts re­mained de­fi­ant in their de­nials that Da­m­as­cus was re­spon­si­ble for a chem­i­cal at­tack against anti-gov­ern­ment forces in the north­ern prov­ince of Idlib this week that killed more than 80 peo­ple and wounded hun­dreds more, even as calls for ret­ri­bu­tion by Washington and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity gained steam.

Sec­re­tary of State Rex W. Tiller­son and other top aides re­cently floated the idea that Mr. As­sad could stay in power as part of a set­tle­ment of the coun­try’s bloody 6-year-old civil war, but Mr. Trump said his at­ti­tude to­ward the Syr­ian regime had “changed very much” as the video of the at­tack and the tes­ti­mony of sur­vivors con­tin­ued to pour in Wed­nes­day.

“When you kill in­no­cent chil­dren, in­no­cent ba­bies — ba­bies, lit­tle ba­bies — with a chem­i­cal gas that is so lethal, peo­ple were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines,” Mr. Trump said, speak­ing in the Rose Gar­den be­side vis­it­ing King Ab­dul­lah of Jor­dan. “... I’ve been watch­ing it and see­ing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that.”

Mr. Trump in his re­marks did not de­mand Mr. As­sad step down or crit­i­cize Rus­sia for its sup­port of Da­m­as­cus.

U.S. of­fi­cials and pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tors say the gas was likely chlo­rine, with traces of a nerve agent like sarin.

In Khan Sheikhoun, the Syr­ian town tar­geted in the strike, res­cue work­ers found ter­ri­fied sur­vivors still hid­ing in shel­ters as an­other wave of airstrikes bat­tered the town Wed­nes­day. Many sur­vivors had been trans­ported to nearby Turkey for treat­ment.

But any U.S. mil­i­tary re­sponse is com­pli­cated by the fact that both Rus­sian and Ira­nian-backed forces are aid­ing the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment, and by Mr. Trump’s own past com­ments that his main pri­or­ity in Syria was de­feat­ing Is­lamic State and other ji­hadist groups that have flooded into Syria as the civil war ground on, per­haps in al­liance with Moscow.

In­ter­na­tional ten­sions from Tues­day’s at­tack were on full dis­play dur­ing an emer­gency meet­ing of the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil on Wed­nes­day.

Coun­cil mem­bers, led by U.S. Am­bas­sador to the U.N. Nikki Ha­ley, lam­basted Syr­ian and Rus­sian rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the coun­cil, who they hold re­spon­si­ble for the chem­i­cal strike. Rus­sia is op­pos­ing a res­o­lu­tion spon­sored by the U.S., Bri­tain and France that would con­demn the use of chem­i­cal weapons in Syria “in the strong­est terms” and back an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the in­ter­na­tional chem­i­cal weapons watch­dog, the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for the Pro­hi­bi­tion of Chem­i­cal Weapons. Rus­sian diplo­mats ar­gue it was still un­proven that the As­sad gov­ern­ment was be­hind the Idlib at­tack.

Hold­ing pho­to­graphs of child vic­tims of the strike, Amb. Ha­ley said the at­tack had “all the hall­marks” of the As­sad’s regime and its de­plorable record of us­ing chem­i­cal weapons in the past to quash rebel forces.

Tues­day’s chem­i­cal weapons at­tack was the third time regime forces are be­lieved to have used such weapons since a 2014 Rus­sia-bro­kered pact to dis­man­tle his chem­i­cal stock­piles. That pact came shortly af­ter Pres­i­dent Obama is­sued his much-de­rided “red line” threat­en­ing U.S. mil­i­tary ac­tion if the As­sad regime used chem­i­cal weapons, a dec­la­ra­tion that Mr. Trump said Wed­nes­day had greatly weak­ened Washington’s lever­age in solv­ing the cri­sis.

All three at­tacks, in­clud­ing Tues­day’s strike, were fo­cused on the anti-As­sad en­clave in north­ern Syria.

‘A man with no con­science’

“There are times we are com­pelled to do more than just talk,” Ms. Ha­ley told coun­cil mem­bers Wed­nes­day. She de­nounced Mr. As­sad as a man “with no con­science” whose bru­tal tac­tics to stamp out rebel forces are di­rectly en­abled by the Rus­sian mil­i­tary.

“Rus­sia can­not es­cape re­spon­si­bil­ity for this,” she said.

Syria’s Deputy U.N. Am­bas­sador Moun­zer Moun­zer told the coun­cil his gov­ern­ment cat­e­gor­i­cally re­jects “false claims and ac­cu­sa­tions” that the army used toxic chem­i­cals against Syr­ian civil­ians in Khan Sheikhoun, say­ing they are be­ing used “as hu­man shields by armed ter­ror­ist groups.”

He said the army doesn’t have any type of chem­i­cal weapons and “we have never used them and we will never use them.”

Rus­sian and Syr­ian war­planes have worked in tan­dem to dec­i­mate rebel-held ar­eas in north­ern Syria over the course of the civil war, and the chem­i­cal weapon

at­tack came even as Mr. As­sad’s forces ap­peared to be gain­ing the up­per hand in the strug­gle.

Some U.S. con­ser­va­tives ar­gued that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­cent com­ment say­ing Mr. As­sad’s re­moval was no longer a con­di­tion for a peace deal may have em­bold­ened the Syr­ian leader.

“It’s my be­lief if you are Bashar al-As­sad and you read that it is no longer a pri­or­ity of the United States to have you re­moved from power, I be­lieve that is an in­cen­tive to act with im­punity,” Sen. Marco Ru­bio, Florida Repub­li­can, told re­porters on Capi­tol Hill Wed­nes­day.

The Rus­sian De­fense Min­istry claimed the Syr­ian strikes were tar­get­ing a rebel arms de­pot, which in­cluded chem­i­cal weapons, and the fa­cil­ity’s deadly tox­ins could have been re­leased in the af­ter­math of the airstrike.

Moscow and Da­m­as­cus’ op­po­si­tion, with sup­port from China, to any ac­tion by the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil es­sen­tially ties the world body’s hands on ef­forts to con­demn the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment.

On Capi­tol Hill, the top two mem­bers of the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions panel in­tro­duced a bi­par­ti­san bill for a con­gres­sional res­o­lu­tion con­demn­ing the chem­i­cal at­tack and the As­sad regime.

Mary­land Demo­cratic Sen. Ben

Cardin, a co-spon­sor of the leg­is­la­tion, said the chem­i­cal strike in Idlib was a di­rect chal­lenge to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Syr­ian pol­icy. “Make no mis­take, the As­sad regime is de­lib­er­ately test­ing the new ad­min­is­tra­tion and its re­solve,” Mr. Cardin said in a state­ment.

South Carolina Repub­li­can Sen. Lind­sey Graham gave a blunter as­sess­ment of what the White House must do to hold Mr. As­sad and his al­lies ac­count­able.

“Words won’t change things in Syria. It’s up to the pres­i­dent to deal a hard blow to As­sad,” Sen. Graham said Wed­nes­day.

Other mem­bers of the Trump na­tional se­cu­rity team also sig­naled the pol­icy line against Mr. As­sad may be hard­en­ing.

“It was a heinous act and will be treated as such,” De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis told re­porters Wed­nes­day be­fore a meet­ing with Sin­ga­porean De­fense Min­is­ter Ng Eng Hen at the Pentagon.

He de­clined to pro­vide de­tails as to what kind of op­tions were be­ing con­sid­ered inside the Pentagon in re­sponse to the at­tack, and Mr. Trump in his press con­fer­ence said he was stick­ing to his pol­icy of not re­veal­ing his mil­i­tary plans pre­ma­turely.

Asked what kind of ac­tion Washington is weigh­ing, Mr. Trump replied, “You’ll see.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Turk­ish medics check a vic­tim of a chem­i­cal weapon at­tack who was trans­ported from the Syr­ian prov­ince of Idlib. The at­tack on Tues­day killed dozens of peo­ple, said op­po­si­tion ac­tivists, de­scrib­ing it as among the worst in the coun­try’s 6-year-old civil war.

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