Trump promises quick decision on US response to Syria chemical attack
'Everybody's gonna pay a price' for 'atrocious' attack, president says as his generals assess culpability and options
President Donald Trump said on Monday he would decide “within 24 to 48 hours” the US response to a chemical attack on a Syrian town, as tensions over Syria escalated with a missile strike on a Syrian regime airbase.
Mr Trump condemned the “atrocious” and “horrible” attack that rescuers and activists said killed 48 people and injured hundreds in Douma on Saturday.
“We're talking about humanity. And it can't be allowed to happen," he said ahead of a cabinet meeting, reasserting the US red line against the use of chemical weapons.
Asked about the US response and whether his administration would take military action, the president said: "We'll be making that decision very quickly. Probably by the end of today. We cannot allow atrocities like that."
"Nothing is off the table,” he said, echoing comments earlier by Defence Secretary James Mattis.
Mr Trump said those responsible would pay a price even if it was the Russian president Vladimir Putin, whose country, along with Iran, are the two major allies of the Syrian regime.
“Everybody's gonna pay a price, he will and everybody will," Mr Trump said.
He indicated that his generals were already assessing the evidence to determine who was responsible.
"So if it's Russia, if it's Syria, if it's Iran, if it's all of them together, we'll figure it out and we'll know the answers quite soon," said Mr Trump.
According to US officials quoted by Reuters, the initial findings suggested a nerve agent was used in Douma, but further evidence was needed to establish the type of agent and who was responsible.
The president had authorised missile strikes on a Syrian airbase in April last year in response to a sarin gas attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed nearly 80 people.
The US was suspected of carrying out another missile strike on the Tayfur airbase in Homs on Monday before Russia and Syria said Israel was responsible. Israel did not comment on the attack, which killed least 14 people including Iranians, but US officials told NBC News that Israel had notified Washington of the attack beforehand.
As US generals assessed their potential targets in the event Mr Trump decides to take action military again, Mr Mattis pointed fingers at Russia.
"The first thing we have to look at is why are chemical weapons still being used at all when Russia was the framework guarantor of removing all chemical weapons, and so working with our allies and partners from Nato to Qatar and elsewhere we are going to address this issue," Mr Mattis said before a meeting with Qatar’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad, in Washington.
Russia on Monday said that its own investigation had found no evidence that chemical weapons were used in Douma and warned against a hasty reaction.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russian experts had visited the site of the alleged attack and "did not find any trace of chlorine or any other chemical substance used against civilians".
"It's necessary to examine very carefully what happened in Douma … without this information, making any deductions is wrong and dangerous," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
The White House scheduled two meetings on Syria on Monday. At the first meeting, chaired by Mr Trump's new national security adviser John Bolton, national security heads including the secretary of defence, the acting secretary of state, the joint chiefs of staff and Syria desk directors will assess the findings and options available to Washington. Later in the day, a meeting was to be held with Mr Trump to present those findings, at which with recommendations for the president were expected.
Charles Lister, a senior fellow and director of extremism and counterterrorism at the Middle East Institute, told The National that the White House meetings would review a range of options in Syria including military ones.
“The White House principals' meeting is to be presented with a broad array of possible strike options, most likely those related to critical Syrian military infrastructure, facilities linked to the use of air, ground and missile bombardment and the construction of munitions, and possibly also facilities suspected to be linked to the regime’s renewed chemical weapons research programme,” he said.
Mr Bolton’s attendance will bring “a hard stance on Damascus, but he’ll have to balance a hesitancy within US Central Command,” Mr Lister said.
Centcom’s hesitancy is driven by fears that US military strikes against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad could endanger an estimated 2,000 US troops in north-east Syria.
At the United Nations, US Ambassador Nikki Haley was to take part in an emergency meeting of the Security Council, where the US was circulating a draft resolution calling for a new independent inquiry into chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
The Trump administration was also co-ordinating with its European and regional partners to plan a response. Mr Trump called his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron and “they agreed to exchange information on the nature of the attacks and co-ordinate a strong, joint response,” the White House said.
After Mr Mattis and the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford submit their military options to Mr Trump, it will be up to the US president to make the final decision.
Updated: April 9, 2018 11:40 PM