The likelihood of a military strike against Syria after a suspected chemical weapons attack increased Sunday as President Trump said there would be a “big price to pay” and officials in France vowed the country would “do its duty” in responding.
In reference to a warning by President Emmanuel Macron last month that France would strike unilaterally if Syria used chemical weapons again, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that the nation would assume its responsibilities.
Several prominent Republicans urged Trump to act — and to reconsider his plan to draw down the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told ABC News’ “This Week” that this is a “defining moment” in Trump’s presidency that demands follow-through. Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) suggested that Trump change his mind about withdrawing troops from Syria, place more sanctions on Russia and consider targeted attacks on Syrian facilities, similar to one he ordered a year ago after a chemical attack on civilians.
Even before the lawmakers spoke, Trump himself hinted that a military strike might be at hand if the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces is verified.
As grisly images emerged, showing bodies of babies in basements and bloodied survivors at hospitals in Eastern Ghouta, Trump made a rare direct criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He said Putin shared blame for the deaths through Russia’s support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay,” Trump said in back-to-back tweets. “Open area immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!”
Late Sunday, SANA, Syria’s state-run news agency, said that an air base in central Syria was hit by a missile attack and that the military shot down eight missiles. The report initially said the attack in Homs province was “likely to be an American aggression.” Later, however, Syrian officials and allies in Russia said the airstrike was carried out by Israel, which also struck the same airfield in February.
Israel did not immediately confirm the reports of the Sunday attack.
In a statement, the Pentagon denied the report: “At this time, the Department of Defense is not conducting airstrikes in Syria. However, we continue to closely watch the situation and support the ongoing diplomatic efforts to hold those who use chemical weapons, in Syria and otherwise, accountable.”
The crisis in Syria is escalating at a pivotal moment for the White House’s national security team. John Bolton, a noted hawk on Russia and Iran, begins work as Trump’s national security adviser on Monday. On Thursday, CIA Director Mike Pompeo has a confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on his nomination as secretary of state.
Trump also blamed his predecessor for not following through on his threat that Assad’s chemical weapons use was a red line that would not be tolerated, something that Trump suggested he would not repeat.
“If President Obama had crossed his stated Red Line In The Sand, the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago! Animal Assad would have been history!” he tweeted.
Echoing Trump, Vice President Pence tweeted that U.S. officials were monitoring the events. “The Assad regime & its backers MUST END their barbaric behavior,” he added. “As POTUS said, big price to pay for those responsible!”
Syrian, Russian denials
Syria and its main backers, Russia and Iran, are not only denying responsibility, they question whether there even was an attack.
SANA said the reports originated with “terrorists” who are on the verge of collapse under an offensive by the Syrian army.
“Such allegations and accusations by the Americans and certain Western countries signal a new conspiracy against the Syrian government and people, and a pretext for military action,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
And Russia’s Foreign Ministry released a statement claiming that information on the reported attack is a tactic being used to cover up for terrorists.
“The goal of these false conjectures, which are without basis, are designed to shield the terrorists and the implacable radical opposition, who reject a political settlement,” the statement said.
The crisis over Syria is likely to accelerate the downward spiral of the relationship between Russia and the United States, already at its lowest point in decades. On Friday, the administration placed economic sanctions on some Russian tycoons. The sanctions give the United States a potent weapon to pressure international financial institutions not to lend money or facilitate transactions by the well-connected Russians.
“Whatever was driving Trump to leave Putin alone, it’s over,” said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, an analytical firm. “Over the course of 48 hours, Trump basically sanctioned the Russian system and fingered Putin for backing the ‘Animal Assad.’
“If the U.S. confirms chemical weapons were used, I think we get a strike on Syria. As harsh as Friday’s sanctions were, they also set the precedent for sanctioning anyone who benefits from the Russian system.”
Trump's gradual shift
Trump has come reluctantly to this crucible over Syria.
Assad has never been a priority for Trump. Though he called him a “bad guy,” he repeatedly said on the campaign trail and in the White House that Assad is not a U.S. priority. He was willing to be involved in Syria as long as the fight against the Islamic State was going on, but not much more. His announcement that the U.S. military role in Syria was “coming to a rapid end” was a continuation of that belief.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is recuperating at home after last year’s brain cancer diagnosis, tweeted that Trump’s words may have set the stage for another chemical attack.
“@POTUS’s pledge to withdraw from #Syria has only emboldened Assad, backed by Russia & Iran, to commit more war crimes in #Douma,” he tweeted. “@POTUS responded after last year’s chemical attack. He should do so again & make Assad pay a price for his brutality.”
A year ago, Trump also had to do an about-face on Syria. Last week was the first anniversary of a sarin attack that killed more than 80 Syrians in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. That occurred shortly after the administration said that it did not believe removing Assad from power was a priority. The Syrian government was deemed responsible in a joint inquiry by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The use of sarin at Khan Sheikhoun angered Trump and led him to reassess his attitude toward Syria and Assad.
“It crossed a lot of lines for me,” he said. “When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that was so lethal,” then it “crosses many lines, beyond a red line, many, many lines.”
Three days after the attack, Trump ordered a missile strike on the Syrian airfield that had been used by planes that dropped the sarin.
White House homeland security adviser Thomas Bossert said that when he heard of this weekend’s attack, his first thought was the timing, coming one year after “the last time they made the mistake of using these weapons and pushing the rest of the world. This isn’t just the United States. This is one of those issues on which every nation, all peoples, have all agreed and have agreed since World War II this is an unacceptable practice.” Nothing, Bossert said on “This Week,” should be taken “off the table.”
Sentiments of outrage over the most recent incident reverberated around the world.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called the attack an example of the Assad government’s brutality. The European Union issued a statement appealing to Assad’s allies Russia and Iran to “use their influence to prevent any further attack and ensure the cessation of hostilities and de-escalation of violence.” Turkey, which has been cooperating with Assad allies in talks for a political solution, called for international action to prevent what it called war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Amie Ferris-Rotman, Louisa Loveluck, Sean Sullivan, Paul Sonne and Brian Murphy contributed to this report.