Trump squares up to As­sad over at­tack

US pres­i­dent raises threat of mil­i­tary ac­tion against Syria af­ter ‘heinous’ chem­i­cal strike

The Daily Telegraph - - Front Page - By Bar­ney Hen­der­son in New York and Nick Allen in Wash­ing­ton

DON­ALD TRUMP last night raised the prospect of mil­i­tary ac­tion against the Syr­ian regime af­ter he said that Bashar al-As­sad has “crossed a lot of lines” and the US has a “re­spon­si­bil­ity” to act.

The US pres­i­dent said Tues­day’s chem­i­cal weapons at­tack, which in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials say was un­doubt­edly launched by regime war planes, was an “af­front to hu­man­ity”.

At least 86 peo­ple were killed, 30 of whom were chil­dren, in the sarin gas at­tack in the rebel-held Idlib prov­ince.

The US re­sponse to the at­tack is be­ing viewed as Mr Trump’s first ma­jor for­eign pol­icy test.

Speak­ing at a White House press con­fer­ence yes­ter­day, the pres­i­dent sug­gested that the US would now re­spond to the As­sad regime. When asked how he planned to re­spond, Mr Trump told re­porters: “You’ll see.”

He also said yes­ter­day: “I now have that re­spon­si­bil­ity and I will carry it very proudly.”

Mr Trump’s com­ments came af­ter Nikki Ha­ley, the US am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions, con­demned the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil’s fail­ure to in­ter­vene in the Syr­ian civil war. She said: “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.”

Mr Trump said: “Yes­ter­day’s chem­i­cal at­tack, a chem­i­cal at­tack so hor­rific in Syria against in­no­cent peo­ple in­clud­ing women, small chil­dren, and even beau­ti­ful lit­tle ba­bies, their deaths were an af­front to hu­man­ity. These heinous ac­tions by the As­sad regime can­not be tol­er­ated. The US stands with our al­lies across the globe to con­demn this hor­rific at­tack.” In his com­ments Mr Trump did not once men­tion Rus­sia, the As­sad regime’s key ally.

Mike Pence, the US vice pres­i­dent, last night said “all op­tions are on the ta­ble” in how to re­spond to the at­tack.

The White House had said only last week that US pol­icy on Syria was no longer fo­cused on oust­ing Mr As­sad. How­ever, Tues­day’s at­tack has dra­mat­i­cally changed Mr Trump’s po­si­tion.

“It had a big im­pact on me. It was a hor­ri­ble, hor­ri­ble thing. I’ve been watch­ing it and it doesn’t get any worse than that,” he said. “My at­ti­tude to Syria and As­sad has changed very much. You are now talk­ing about a whole dif­fer­ent level. What hap­pened yes­ter­day is un­ac­cept­able to me. You will see. They will have a mes­sage, you will see what the mes­sage will be.”

One op­tion would be for Mr Trump to or­der sur­gi­cal strikes on regime air bases us­ing sur­face-to-air mis­siles, de­fence sources said.

Any di­rect US mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion is un­likely to de­velop into a pro­tracted con­flict. Mr Trump has reg­u­larly con­demned lengthy and costly US wars in Afghanista­n and Iraq.

“I would love to have never been in the Mid­dle East,” he said yes­ter­day.

The US was close to launch­ing air strikes against Syria in 2013 fol­low­ing a chem­i­cal at­tack on the Da­m­as­cus sub­urbs that killed up to 1,300 peo­ple. How­ever, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama backed down from launch­ing at­tacks.

THERESA MAY has no plans to take mil­i­tary ac­tion against Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad over the “ap­palling” chem­i­cal weapons at­tack in Syria, Down­ing Street said yes­ter­day.

Asked whether Bri­tain might re­spond by bomb­ing tar­gets in Syria a Down­ing Street of­fi­cial said: “No one is talk­ing about mil­i­tary ac­tion.”

Boris John­son, the For­eign Sec­re­tary, said Mr As­sad should not be al­lowed to re­main in power af­ter the Syr­ian con­flict is over, and called for crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tions of those be­hind the lat­est gas at­tack.

At­tend­ing a ma­jor aid-pledg­ing con­fer­ence for Syria in Brus­sels, Mr John­son said: “Of the 400,000 peo­ple who are es­ti­mated to have been killed in Syria he [As­sad] is re­spon­si­ble for the vast ma­jor­ity of the butcher’s bill.

“All the ev­i­dence I’ve seen sug­gests that this was the As­sad regime who did it in the full knowl­edge that they were us­ing il­le­gal weapons in a bar­baric at­tack on their own peo­ple.

“What’s needed now is a po­lit­i­cal process to get rid of that regime and give the peo­ple of Syria a chance.”

The at­tack over­shad­owed the Brus­sels con­fer­ence where donors from more than 70 coun­tries made a col­lec­tive pledge of $6 bil­lion (£4.8 bil­lion) in aid for Syria’s war-rav­aged peo­ple.

Mr As­sad’s regime was ac­cused of be­ing be­hind the at­tack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in which more than 80 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 30 chil­dren, died.

US as­sess­ments showed the at­tack most likely in­volved chlo­rine and traces of the nerve agent sarin. If sarin was used it would show Syria may have cheated on its pre­vi­ous agree­ment to give up chem­i­cal weapons. A US of­fi­cial said radar and other tech­nol­ogy showed Syr­ian air­craft were fly­ing in the area at the time of the at­tack.

In a pas­sion­ate speech Nikki Ha­ley, the US am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions, showed pic­tures of child vic­tims at an emer­gency meet­ing of the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil and sug­gested the US could act uni­lat­er­ally.

“How many more chil­dren have to die be­fore Rus­sia cares?” she said. “Look at those pic­tures. The truth is that As­sad, Rus­sia, and Iran have no in­ter­est in peace.

“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. For the sake of the vic­tims, I hope the rest of the coun­cil is fi­nally will­ing to do the same.”

Rex Tiller­son, the US sec­re­tary of state, said last night that the Rus­sians “re­ally need to think care­fully about their con­tin­ued sup­port of the As­sad regime”. And Mike Pence, the US vice pres­i­dent, said the “time has come” for Rus­sia to meet its obli­ga­tions in elim­i­nat­ing chem­i­cal weapons in Syria.

Bri­tain, France and the US had ear­lier sub­mit­ted a res­o­lu­tion con­demn­ing the at­tack, threat­en­ing con­se­quences for the use of chem­i­cal weapons, and back­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the in­ter­na­tional watch­dog, the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for the Pro­hi­bi­tion of Chem­i­cal Weapons.

The res­o­lu­tion also de­manded that Da­m­as­cus pro­vide ac­cess to flight logs, in­clud­ing the names of com­man­ders of any he­li­copter squadrons, for the day of the at­tack and asked the sec­re­tary-gen­eral to re­port back in 30 days whether the in­for­ma­tion had been pro­vided.

Rus­sia, as a per­ma­nent mem­ber of the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, has the power to veto the res­o­lu­tion and Moscow an­nounced its op­po­si­tion, call­ing the res­o­lu­tion “cat­e­gor­i­cally un­ac­cept­able” be­cause “it runs ahead of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­sults and names the cul­prit, Da­m­as­cus”.

Vladimir Safronkov, Rus­sia’s deputy UN am­bas­sador, told the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil: “The main task now is to have an ob­jec­tive in­quiry.” He claimed: “Fal­si­fied re­ports about this in­ci­dent have come from the White Hel­mets or the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights based in Lon­don.”

Mr Safronkov claimed the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment had car­ried out an airstrike on the eastern edge of Khan Sheikhoun “on a large ware­house of am­mu­ni­tion and mil­i­tary equip­ment” where there was a rebel fa­cil­ity “to pro­duce am­mu­ni­tion with the use of toxic weapons”. A White House of­fi­cial said this ex­pla­na­tion was not cred­i­ble: “We don’t be­lieve it.”

Matthew Ry­croft, the Bri­tish am­bas­sador to the UN, said the at­tack “bears all the hall­marks” of the As­sad regime.

He said: “We have ev­ery in­di­ca­tion that this was a sus­tained at­tack us­ing air­craft over a num­ber of hours. We see all the signs of an at­tack us­ing a nerve agent ca­pa­ble of killing over a hun­dred peo­ple and harm­ing hun­dreds more.”

Af­ter a chem­i­cal at­tack in 2013 Rus­sia bro­kered a deal in which Syria agreed to de­stroy its chem­i­cal weapons arse­nal.

Mr Ry­croft said: “As­sad has hu­mil­i­ated Rus­sia by show­ing just how empty Syria’s prom­ise was to re­move all its chem­i­cal weapons. Rus­sia de­ployed the full weight of its armed forces to help As­sad and what does Rus­sia get as re­pay­ment? As­sad hu­mil­i­ates Rus­sia in the eyes of the world by in­ten­si­fy­ing his at­tacks. If Rus­sia is to re­store its cred­i­bil­ity, they will need to join us.”

Mr Safronkov at­tacked Mr Ry­croft, call­ing his state­ments about Rus­sia “com­pletely ir­re­spon­si­ble and lack­ing in re­spect”. He said: “Ev­ery­thing is guided by this need for regime change, this ob­ses­sion. You are try­ing to have the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil give cover of le­git­i­macy to your il­le­git­i­mate plans. You should not try to in­tro­duce dis­cord be­tween us and the peo­ples of Syria or the Mid­dle East.”

France’s for­eign minister said the chem­i­cal at­tack showed Mr As­sad was test­ing the new US ad­min­is­tra­tion. Jean-Marc Ayrault said: “It’s a test. I told them [Amer­ica] that we need clar­ity. What’s your po­si­tion?” Sig­mar Gabriel, the Ger­man for­eign minister, also called on the US to clar­ify its po­si­tion: “The elec­tion cam­paign is over, Mr Trump.”

Ab­dul­hamid al-Youssef gives his nine-month-old twins one last hug be­fore bury­ing the in­fants who, along with his wife Dalal and 16 other mem­bers of his fam­ily, were killed by a chem­i­cal at­tack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib, north­ern Syria

As the UN dis­cussed the Syr­ian sit­u­a­tion to­day Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump met Jor­dan’s King Ab­dul­lah in the Oval Of­fice, watched by first lady Me­la­nia Trump and Queen Ra­nia

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