WASHINGTON (AP) – President Donald Trump declared Wednesday the deadly chemical attack in Syria crossed “many, many lines” and abruptly transformed his thinking about Syrian President Bashar Assad. Still, he pointedly refused to say what action the U.S. might take in response.
Facing one of his first global crises, Trump blamed the attack squarely on Assad’s forces, even as the embattled Syrian leader and his Russian backers denied it. He suggested that the attack that killed 72 people had cut into his former reluctance to plunge the U.S. further into the complex and dangerous turmoil in the Middle East.
“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,” Trump said in the White House Rose Garden. U.S. officials said the gas was likely chlorine, with traces of a nerve agent like sarin.
While continuing to blame 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 U.S. priority, drawing outrage from Assad critics in the U.S. 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.
Yet Trump was adamant that he would not telegraph any potential U.S. military retaliation, even as his U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, was promising a strong and perhaps even unilateral American response. Trump said disclosing military action ahead of time was a mistake the Obama administration had repeatedly made.
“I’m not saying I’m doing anything one way or another, but I’m certainly not going to be telling you,” Trump said.
Since the attack Tuesday in rebel-held territory in northern Syria, Trump has been under increasing pressure to explain whether the attack was egregious enough to force a U.S. response. After all, Trump’s first reaction to the attack was to blame Obama’s “weakness” in earlier years for enabling Assad.
Obama had put Assad on notice that using chemical weapons would cross a “red line” necessitating a U.S. response, but then failed to follow through, pulling back from planned airstrikes on Assad’s forces after Congress wouldn’t vote to approve them. Trump and other critics have cited that as a key moment the U.S. lost much global credibility.
“I now have responsibility,” Trump said. “That responsibility could be made a lot easier if it was handled years ago.”
Standing alongside Jordan’s King Abdullah II at a joint news conference, Trump appeared to adopt the first part of Obama’s stance – that chemical weapons use is intolerable – while stopping short of saying what might come next.
The strongest indication that the U.S. might act actually came at the United Nations, where Trump’s envoy held up photos of the attack’s victims in an emotional plea to the Security Council to intervene.
“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,” Haley declared.
Though Trump has assigned no blame to Russia or Iran – Assad’s two staunchest allies – both Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have argued adamantly that both must use their influence to prevent Assad from mounting further attacks. As the Security Council weighed a resolution condemning chemical weapons use in Syria, Haley accused Moscow of blocking action and closing its eyes to the “barbarity” of three previous chemical attacks, also blamed on the Syrian government.
The most recent attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun bore telltale signs of nerve agent exposure such as victims convulsing and foaming from the mouth. Videos showed volunteer medics using firehoses to wash chemicals from victims’ bodies and lifeless children being piled in heaps.
Early U.S. assessments show the attack most likely involved chlorine and traces of the nerve agent sarin, according to two U.S. 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 the 2013 attack, the U.S. and Russia brokered a deal in which Syria declared its chemical weapons arsenal, agreed to destroy it and join the Chemical Weapons Convention. Chlorine, which has legitimate uses as well, isn’t banned under that convention except when used in a weapon. But nerve agents like sarin are banned in all circumstances.