Trump squares up to Assad over attack
US president raises threat of military action against Syria after ‘heinous’ chemical strike
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