The Trump administration joined governments around the world in condemning the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad for a horrific chemical weapons attack Tuesday that killed at least 58 people, including 11 children, saying the Obama administration shared some of the blame for refusing to enforce its “red line” against chemical weapons attacks by Mr. Assad’s forces.
The White House and State Department issued strong condemnations. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said in a statement that the strike on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria was emblematic of Mr. Assad’s “brutal, unabashed barbarism.”
One State Department official characterized the attack as a blatant war crime, but neither President Trump nor Mr. Tillerson delivered his statement in person.
The attack comes just days after the Trump administration signaled that it was no longer demanding the ouster of Mr. Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran, as a precondition for any deal to end the country’s brutal 6-year-old civil war.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry, which claims Damascus surrendered its entire chemical arsenal as part of a Russia-brokered deal in 2014, denied that the government was behind the aerial strike.
The U.N. Security Council is set to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the attack Wednesday morning.
Videos from the scene showed volunteer medics using fire hoses to wash the chemicals from victims’ bodies, The Associated Press reported. Haunting images of lifeless children piled in heaps reflected the magnitude of the attack, which was reminiscent of a 2013 chemical assault that left hundreds dead.
Russia and China vetoed a Western-backed resolution at the United Nations on Feb. 28 aimed at holding the Syrian government accountable for three attacks involving chlorine gas.
Dr. AbdulHai Tennari, a pulmonologist who treated dozens of victims Tuesday, told reporters that the attack appeared to be more serious than chlorine.
Congressional lawmakers and several foreign leaders saw the attack as the final straw for the international community’s tolerance of the Syrian regime and called for Mr. Assad’s ouster. But Mr. Tillerson demanded only that Russia and Iran put pressure on Damascus as it moves to quash anti-government forces.
Mr. Trump, who did not mention the incident in two public events, reportedly received news of the early-morning gas attack during a teleconference with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the attack “against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable act.”
While the Trump administration is intent on abandoning President Obama’s hands-off Syria policies, seen by many as weak and ineffective, it has struggled to decide on a strategy to define Mr. Assad’s future role in his country.
The attack marked the third time that Assad regime forces used chemical weapons since a 2014 pact with Russia to dismantle the chemical stockpiles. All three attacks, including Tuesday’s strike, were focused on the anti-Assad enclave of Idlib in northern Syria.
A senior Senate Democrat said the attack was a test of the administration’s resolve and asserted that Mr. Assad’s forces have scored striking gains in recent months.
“Make no mistake: The Assad regime is deliberately testing the new administration and its resolve,” said a statement by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “In the absence of a comprehensive policy for Syria, we have been left with troubling statements from administration officials about Assad’s role in Syria’s future and blaming the previous administration.”
But Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, drew a direct line between Mr. Obama’s ill-fated red line and Mr. Assad’s growing sense of impunity in pursuing his enemies.
Denouncing Mr. Obama’s “six years of weakness and irresolution,” Mr. Cotton said that “it is time for a stronger Syria policy, one that holds the Assad government, Russia and Iran accountable for their brutality. And that policy begins with demanding Assad’s departure from Syria.”
Russia has conducted airstrikes in support of its Syrian ally, but both Moscow and Damascus strongly denied any involvement in the chemical attack. Syrian lawmaker Sharif Shahada told Iranian state channel Press TV that the chemical agents identified in the attack may have been part of a rebel weapons cache detonated by Syrian airstrikes in the area.
Critics have long maintained that Mr. Obama’s declaration of a red line in 2012, and his unwillingness to authorize U.S. military strikes after a deadly chemical attack by regime forces the following year, only emboldened Mr. Assad.
If Mr. Obama’s red line “had been acted upon, I feel we would be in a very different place,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican.
Military action, which the Obama administration canceled at the last minute, “would have put Assad on his heels” and changed the dynamic of the conflict, Mr. Corker said. Mr. Obama said he felt he needed congressional authorization for an attack, and the surprise Russian initiative to end Syria’s chemical weapons program made the U.S. effort moot.
Mr. Spicer also placed much of the blame squarely on Mr. Obama and “the past administration’s weakness and irresolution” toward the Assad regime. But he quickly backpedaled when asked if Mr. Assad’s days were numbered in Syria under Mr. Trump.
“I think we had opportunities in the past several years to look at regime change. I think … the landscape [was] fundamentally different than it is today,” Mr. Spicer said.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley confirmed that the U.N. Security Council would hold a rare open session this week on Syria’s chemical weapons use. Ms. Haley broke ranks with Mr. Tillerson over the weekend, saying Mr. Assad cannot be allowed to retain power in the country — a key demand of the Obama administration’s Syrian policy.
“Our goal is we want to bring Assad to justice. We want them to pay for the crimes that he’s done,” she said Sunday during an interview with ABC News.
Mr. Spicer played down any notion of dissent or confusion regarding Syria. He noted that Mr. Tillerson and Ms. Haley’s statements indicate “the reality of the situation, politically speaking.”
“I think we would look like, to some degree, rather silly not acknowledging the political realities that exist in Syria” and the complications they pose to U.S. diplomacy.
The State Department said Moscow and Tehran, Mr. Assad’s key backers, face more pressure to act after the attack.
“Russia and Iran are the self-proclaimed guarantors for the behaviors of this regime,” said a senior State Department official, noting the key roles of both countries in brokering a Syrian cease-fire this year and initiating peace talks. “They will have a lot to answer for. … If it is what it looks like, it is a war crime.”
Pentagon officials declined to comment on the attack or its potential impact on U.S.-backed operations against the Islamic State group in Syria, referring all queries to the State Department.
The province of Idlib, which is almost entirely controlled by the opposition, is home to some 900,000 displaced Syrians, according to the United Nations. Rebels and opposition officials have expressed concern that the government is planning to mount a concentrated attack on the crowded province, the AP reported.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also denounced the attack, saying the strike could derail ongoing peace talks between Damascus and anti-government factions in Syria. The next round of talks, led by Russian, Iranian and Turkish diplomats, is slated for next month in Astana, Kazakhstan.
“This crime puts into question the entire peace process,” said Mohammad Sabra, who is leading the Syrian opposition delegation during the peace talks. “If the U.N. is unable to prevent the regime to commit such crimes, what would you do to achieve a political process with a view to a transition?” he told Agence France-Presse.
U.S. diplomats are participating in talks in an advisory role in those talks, but Washington does hold any sway over forces on the ground involved in the Syrian civil war, the State Department official said.
⦁ Guy Taylor contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.
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