Syria’s opposition on Wednesday said comments from Washington softening its line against President Bashar Assad were encouraging him to commit more crimes, after a deadly suspected chemical attack blamed on the regime.
Condemnation and calls for the perpetrators to be held responsible continued to come from world figures the day after the attack on a rebel-led town killed at least 72 people.
“Until now, this (US) administration has done nothing and adopted an attitude of a spectator, making statements that give the regime an opportunity to commit more crimes,” the deputy head of the Syrian National Coalition Abdel Hakim Bashar told reporters in Istanbul.
The previous administration of former US president Barack Obama had always pushed for the ouster of Assad, supporting the rebels fighting against his forces.
But in an apparent U-turn, the US ambassador to the United Nations and other top officials in the new administration of President Donald Trump have said ousting Assad is no longer a priority.
“You pick and choose your battles,” US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told reporters, echoing comments made by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on a visit to Turkey last week.
But in a toughening of rhetoric, the White House accused Assad of carrying out a “reprehensible” and “intolerable” chemical attack.
Abdel Hakim Bashar said that the Assad regime posed an even greater danger to security than Islamic State (IS) jihadists and the former Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra front, now called Fateh al-Sham.
“As long as the regime is in place it won’t be possible to defeat terrorism,” said Bashar, whose group is the main umbrella organization of Syrian opposition organizations.
“Even if Daesh (IS) and Al-Nusra are going to be eliminated then this regime would create new terrorist groups to ask the world to choose between it and terrorism,” he said.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, attending an international Syrian aid conference in Brussels, said people should not be shocked by the chemical attack because the international community is allowing such acts to happen.
Hariri said “the world should not be shocked because it’s letting such a regime do what it is doing. What should shock us is the increase of children dying and that the whole world is watching.”
“Everyone is coming to Brussels to make a statement and the regime made its statement in Syria,” he told reporters.
Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit said the attack on a rebel town was “a major crime.”
“Targeting and killing civilians with these prohibited methods is considered a major crime and a barbaric act,” Aboul Gheit said.
“Whoever carried it out will not escape from justice, and must be punished by the international community according to international law and international humanitarian law,” the Arab League chief said, without specifying who he held responsible.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said Tuesday’s airstrike on Khan Sheikhun in Idlib province was likely carried out by government warplanes, a charge the regime denied.
Britain and the United States have pointed the finger at Assad’s government for the attack.
But Russia, which holds a veto in the UN Security Council defended its Syrian ally saying that the “toxic substances” which caused the deaths were in a “terrorist warehouse” on the ground which had been hit by the government airstrike.
The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership at the end of 2011 following months of brutal repression of anti-government demonstrations and an opposition movement supported by Gulf monarchies.
Pope Francis called the suspected chemical weapons attack, which killed many children, “an unacceptable massacre.”
The pope said Wednesday during his general audience that he was “watching with horror at the latest events in Syria,” and said he “strongly deplored the unacceptable massacre.”
He called on the “conscience of those with political responsibility both locally and internationally to cease this tragedy and bring relief to that dear population that for too long has been exhausted by war.”
He also encouraged those bringing aid to the stricken population “even amid insecurity and discomfort.”
Aid conference for Syria
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the attack in Syria is a “moment of truth” that must be investigated.
His remarks came as a Syrian activists reported renewed airstrikes on Khan Sheikhun.
Guterres told reporters at the Syria donor conference in Brussels on Wednesday that he hopes “this moment will be able to mobilize the capacity of all those that have responsibilities in this situation.”
He said “the horrific events of yesterday demonstrate that unfortunately war crimes are going on in Syria, that international humanitarian law remains being violated frequently.”
He added he is “confident that the Security Council will live up to its responsibilities,” with major powers set to convene there later in the day.
European Union foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini urged the international community to press ahead with Syria peace talks, made more urgent after a suspected chemical weapons attack left more than 70 dead in a rebel-held town.
“We need to give a push, a strong push to the political talks in Geneva. We have to unite the international community behind these negotiations,” Mogherini said as she went into the Syrian aid conference.
Lebanon’s Hariri said his country has been overwhelmed by the arrival of some 1.5 million Syrian refugees and “cannot sustain this issue anymore. The international community has to do something.”
French President Francois Hollande urged for an international response to the incident, calling it a “war crime.”
Hollande “reiterated his indignation over the use of chemical weapons in Syria and called for a reaction by the international community commensurate with this war crime,” the president’s office said in a statement.
NATO’s chief also condemned the chemical attack and called for those responsible to be held to account.
Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement that “this is the third report of the use of these barbaric weapons in the last month alone.”
He recalled that the use of chemical weapons is prohibited and that “this international norm must be fully respected and upheld.”
He said Syria “is responsible to ensure its full compliance with these obligations.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.