US President Donald Trump on Wednesday denounced the Syrian regime’s latest alleged chemical weapons attack as an “affront to humanity” and warned it would not be tolerated.
Speaking alongside Jordan’s King Abdullah II at a White House news conference, Trump did not lay out in any detail as to how the United States would respond to the killings.
While continuing to fault predecessor Barack Obama for much of the current situation in Syria, he acknowledged that dealing with the crisis is now his own responsibility and vowed to “carry it very proudly.”
Only days earlier multiple members of Trump’s administration had said Assad’s ouster was no longer a US priority, drawing outrage from Assad critics in the US and abroad. But Trump said Tuesday’s attack “had a big impact on me — big impact.”
“My attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much,” he said.
Trump said of this week’s attack that “it crossed a lot of lines for me. “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.” US officials said the gas was likely chlorine, with traces of a nerve agent like sarin.
Since the attack Tuesday in rebel-held territory in northern Syria, Trump has been under increasing pressure to explain whether the attack would bring a US response. After all, Trump’s first reaction was merely to blame Obama’s “weakness” in earlier years for enabling Assad.
Obama had put Assad on notice in 2013 that using chemical weapons would cross a “red line” necessitating a US response, but then failed to follow through, pulling back from planned airstrikes after Congress wouldn’t vote to approve them. Trump and other critics have cited that as a key moment the US lost much global credibility.
“I now have responsibility,” Trump said. “That responsibility could be made a lot easier if it was handled years ago.”
Yet he was adamant that he would not telegraph any potential US military retaliation, saying anew that that was a mistake the Obama administration had repeatedly made.
“These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated,” he said. “The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this horrific attack.”
Asked whether the attack, which Washington has squarely blamed on Assad, could trigger a change of policy on the Syrian conflict, Trump replied: “We’ll see.”
“I’m not saying I’m doing anything one way or another, but I’m certainly not going to be telling you,” he told reporters.
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley was more explicit, threatening direct action.
“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,” she told a Security Council emergency meeting.
At least 72 people, among them 20 children, were killed in the strike on Khan Sheikhun, and dozens more were left gasping for air, convulsing, and foaming at the mouth, doctors said.
It is thought to be the worst chemical weapons attack in Syria since 2013, when sarin gas was used.
“If we are not prepared to act, then this council will keep meeting, month after month to express outrage at the continuing use of chemical weapons and it will not end,” Haley said. “We will see more conflict in Syria. We will see more pictures that we can never unsee.”
She also lashed out at Russia for failing to rein in its ally Syria.
“How many more children have to die before Russia cares?” she said.
“If Russia has the influence in Syria that it claims to have, we need to see them use it,” she said. “We need to see them put an end to these horrific acts.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Russia needed to “think carefully about their continued support for the Assad regime.”
“There’s no doubt in our mind that the Syrian regime under the leadership of Bashar al Assad is responsible for this horrific attack,” Tillerson said.
Early US assessments show the attack most likely involved chlorine and traces of the nerve agent sarin, according to two US officials, who weren’t authorized to speak publicly about intelligence assessments and demanded anonymity. Use of sarin would be especially troubling because it would suggest Syria may have cheated on its previous deal to give up chemical weapons.
After a 2013 attack, the US and Russia brokered a deal in which Syria declared its chemical weapons arsenal and agreed to destroy it. Chlorine, which has legitimate uses as well, isn’t banned except when used in a weapon. But nerve agents like sarin are banned in all circumstances.
As Trump and other world leaders scrambled for a response, the US was working to lock down details proving Assad’s culpability. Russia’s military, insisting Assad wasn’t responsible, has said the chemicals were dispersed when a Syrian military strike hit a facility where the rebels were manufacturing weapons for use in Iraq.
An American review of radar and other assessments showed Syrian aircraft flying in the area at the time of the attack, a US official said. Russian and US coalition aircraft were not there, the official said.
Britain, France and the United States presented a draft resolution demanding a full investigation of the attack, but Russia said the text was “categorically unacceptable.”
The draft resolution backs a probe by the Organization of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and demands that Syria cooperate to provide information on its military operations on the day of the assault.
Russia’s Deputy Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov told the council that the proposed resolution was hastily prepared and unnecessary, but voiced support for an inquiry.
“The main task now is to have an objective inquiry into what happened,” he said.
Negotiations were continuing on the draft text after Russia’s foreign ministry said in Moscow that “the text as presented is categorically unacceptable.”