- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Saying a deadly chemical weapons attack on a town held by Syria rebels “crossed a lot of lines for me,” President Trump hinted Wednesday that he was preparing a much harder line against the regime of President Bashar Assad but declined to offer specifics on how the U.S. military might respond.

Syrian diplomats and their Russian counterparts remained defiant in their denials that Damascus was responsible for a chemical attack against anti-government forces in the northern province of Idlib this week that killed more than 80 people and wounded hundreds more, even as calls for retribution by Washington and the international community gained steam.

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and other top aides recently floated the idea that Mr. Assad could stay in power as part of a settlement of the country’s bloody 6-year-old civil war, but Mr. Trump said his attitude toward the Syrian regime had “changed very much” as the video of the attack and the testimony of survivors continued to pour in Wednesday.

“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 …,” said Mr. Trump, speaking in the Rose Garden beside visiting King Abdullah of Jordan. “I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that.”

Mr. Trump did not demand that Mr. Assad step down or criticize Russia for its support of Damascus.

U.S. officials and private investigators said the gas was likely chlorine, with traces of a nerve agent such as sarin.

In Khan Sheikhoun, rescue workers found terrified survivors hiding in shelters as another wave of airstrikes battered the town Wednesday. Many survivors had been transported to Turkey for treatment.

But any U.S. military response is complicated by the aid to the Syrian government by Russian and Iranian-backed forces and by Mr. Trump’s past comments that his main priority in Syria was defeating the Islamic State and other jihadi groups that have flooded into the country as the civil war ground on, perhaps in alliance with Moscow.

International tensions from Tuesday’s attack were on full display during an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday.

Council members, led by U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, lambasted Syrian and Russian representatives of the council, whom they hold responsible for the chemical strike. Russia is opposing a resolution sponsored by the U.S., Britain and France that would condemn the use of chemical weapons in Syria “in the strongest terms” and back an investigation by the international chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Russian diplomats argued that it was not proved that the Assad government was behind the Idlib attack.

Holding photographs of child victims of the strike, Ms. Haley said the attack had “all the hallmarks” of the Assad regime and its deplorable record of using chemical weapons to quash rebel forces.

The assault Tuesday was the third time regime forces are believed to have used such weapons since a 2014 Russia-brokered pact to dismantle Mr. Assad’s chemical stockpiles.

That pact was reached shortly after President Obama issued his much-derided “red line” threatening U.S. military action if the Assad regime used chemical weapons. Mr. Trump said Wednesday that Mr. Obama’s declaration greatly weakened Washington’s leverage in solving the crisis.

All three attacks were focused on the anti-Assad enclave in northern Syria.

‘A man with no conscience’

“There are times we are compelled to do more than just talk,” Ms. Haley told council members. She denounced Mr. Assad as a man “with no conscience” whose brutal tactics to stamp out rebel forces are directly enabled by the Russian military.

“Russia cannot escape responsibility for this,” she said.

Syria’s deputy ambassador to the U.N., Mounzer Mounzer, told the council that his government categorically rejects “false claims and accusations” that the army used toxic chemicals against Syrian civilians in Khan Sheikhoun. He said the civilians are being used “as human shields by armed terrorist groups.”

He said the army doesn’t have any type of chemical weapons and “we have never used them and we will never use them.”

Russian and Syrian warplanes have worked in tandem to decimate rebel-held areas in northern Syria over the course of the civil war, and the chemical weapon attack came even as Mr. Assad’s forces appeared to be gaining the upper hand.

Some U.S. conservatives argued that the Trump administration’s comment saying Mr. Assad’s removal was no longer a condition for a peace deal may have emboldened the Syrian leader.

“It’s my belief if you are Bashar al-Assad and you read that it is no longer a priority of the United States to have you removed from power, I believe that is an incentive to act with impunity,” Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, told reporters on Capitol Hill.

The Russian Defense Ministry claimed the Syrian strikes were targeting a rebel arms depot, which included chemical weapons, and the facility’s deadly toxins could have been released in the aftermath of the airstrike.

Moscow and Damascus‘ opposition, with support from China, to any action essentially ties the Security Council’s hands on efforts to condemn the Syrian government.

On Capitol Hill, the top two members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee introduced a bipartisan bill for a congressional resolution condemning the chemical attack and the Assad regime.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat and a co-sponsor of the legislation, said the chemical strike in Idlib was a direct challenge to the Trump administration’s Syria policy. “Make no mistake, the Assad regime is deliberately testing the new administration and its resolve,” Mr. Cardin said in a statement.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, gave a blunter assessment of what the White House must do to hold Mr. Assad and his allies accountable.

“Words won’t change things in Syria. It’s up to the president to deal a hard blow to Assad,” Mr. Graham said.

Other members of the Trump national security team also signaled that the policy line against Mr. Assad may be hardening.

“It was a heinous act and will be treated as such,” Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters Wednesday before a meeting with Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen at the Pentagon.

He declined to provide details as to what kind of options were being considered inside the Pentagon in response to the attack, and Mr. Trump in his press conference said he was sticking to his policy of not revealing his military plans prematurely.

Asked what kind of action the administration was weighing, Mr. Trump replied, “You’ll see.”

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