Gassing near Damascus kills dozen, including kids: activists
McCain says Trump’s withdrawal signal ‘emboldened’ Syria
President Donald Trump warned of a “big price to pay” in response to reports of a chemical attack outside Syria’s capital, days after he said he wanted to quickly end the U.S. military presence in the war-torn Middle East country.
Rescue workers and activists said dozens died in a chemical assault amid renewed fire by Bashar al-Assad’s government on a rebel stronghold near Damascus. The use of chemical weapons in April 2017 provoked a U.S. missile strike, the first direct American hit on Assad’s regime since the conflict in Syria began in March 2011.
While Trump has said he wants U.S. troops out of Syria “very soon,” he posted tweets Sunday condemning the attack, and saying Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran “are responsible for backing Animal Assad.”
The U.S. was also among countries calling for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council. The episode thrust the U.S. and Russia into a new confrontation, with Moscow warning against any military strike and Washington calling for an immediate international response.
“Big price to pay,” Trump said on Twitter. “Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!”
Syria’s official Sana news agency denied the reports, saying the rapidly advancing army “doesn’t need to use any chemical weapons as the media channels that support the terrorists are fabricating.” It cited an official it didn’t identify.
Russia, whose military backing of Assad helped turn the course of the war in his favor, denied that Syrian government forces deployed chemical weapons in Douma, according to the Tass news service, which cited Major General Yuri Yevtushenko. Russia plans to send specialists to analyze the scene once militants are expelled from the area, and said the data will refute claims of chemical use, Tass reported.
The Foreign Ministry in Moscow warned that any foreign military strike against Syria over “fabricated” reports of chemical warfare may lead to the “gravest consequences.”
More than 40 people suffocated due to exposure to an unknown chemical agent, the White Helmets, an opposition-linked civil defense force that operates in rebel areas, said on Twitter. Images of lifeless children and women foaming from their mouths were circulated on social media. Fatalities could exceed 100 people, according to the Syrian National Coalition, an opposition umbrella group.
“Reports from a number of contacts and medical personnel on the ground indicate a potentially high number of casualties, including among families hiding in shelters,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement.
Such attacks on civilians have become “all too common,” and those responsible for this “atrocious act” must be help responsible, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said in a statement.
Haley and officials from several other countries — including the U.K. and France, whose foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian condemned the attacks as a “flagrant violation of international humanitarian law” — requested the emergency meeting of the UN Security Council now set for Monday.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres is “alarmed by allegations that chemical weapons have been used against civilian populations” and any confirmation of those reports would require a “thorough investigation,” his spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, said in a statement. The statement also called for all sides to allow “humanitarian access across Syria” to people in need.
Last year’s U.S. Tomahawk missile strike increased tensions with Russia, which has backed Assad in his battle to suppress an uprising that morphed into a regional proxy war. The State Department said in its statement that Russia “‘ultimately bears responsibility for these brutal attacks” and has “breached its commitments to the United Nations as a framework guarantor” to a 2013 agreement to strip Syria of its chemical weapons stockpiles.
Internal divisions in the Trump administration over how to address Syria leave Russia, Iran and Turkey, not the U.S., “calling the shots in Syria,” said Andreas Krieg, assistant professor of defense studies at King’s College, London.
“Washington is in no position to take any action, and Russia knows that,” Krieg said. “The Trump administration’s rhetoric about pulling out of Syria hasn’t helped the U.S.’s bargaining position. The regime knows now that it will get away with murder.”
Trump discussed the reports of chemical attacks in Syria with the prime minister of Iraq during a Sunday telephone conversation, according to a summary of the call released by the White House.
Senator John McCain blasted Trump in a statement on Sunday, saying the president’s threat to remove U.S. troops had “emboldened” Assad, and that the U.S. needs to lay out a comprehensive strategy on what its mission is in Syria.
“President Trump last week signaled to the world that the United States would prematurely withdraw from Syria,” the Republican from Arizona said in a statement. “Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers have heard him.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said Sunday’s tweet had set up “a defining moment” in Trump’s presidency. “If he doesn’t follow through and live up to that tweet, he’s going to look weak in the eyes of Russia and Iran,” Graham, who, like McCain, is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on ABC’s “This Week.”
More than seven years of war in Syria have killed half a million people and dispersed millions more as refugees. The fighting has also drawn in Iran, Russia, the U.S. and Turkey, and a postwar scenario could include a continuation of Syria’s de facto partition into spheres of foreign influence.