President Trump huddled with his national security team Thursday amid mounting speculation of a military attack in response to Syria’s suspected use of chemical weapons, while Britain’s Cabinet gave the green light to join the U.S. and France in planning a strike.
Top officials in Russia, along with Iran a prime backer of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, voiced fears of a wider conflict between the West and Moscow.
Despite Twitter posts this week from Mr. Trump suggesting a missile strike was imminent, the White House said late Thursday that Mr. Trump and his advisers had not made a final decision on an attack. Defense Secretary James Mattis has said U.S. intelligence officials were still assessing Saturday’s suspected chemical attack, and Mr. Trump was consulting with British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday night.
“We are continuing to assess intelligence and are engaged in conversations with our partners and allies,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
A team of international chemical weapons inspectors from The Hague was headed to the site near the Syrian capital of Damascus on Thursday to try to determine whether a chemical weapons attack had occurred and who was responsible. Washington and Moscow have already clashed over who should make the ultimate call on what happened in the incident.
Syria presents a major dilemma for Mr. Trump, who just weeks ago was pressing his foreign policy team for a plan to withdraw the estimated 2,000 U.S. troops in the country who had been deployed to support the fight against Islamic State. Lawmakers at Secretary of State-nominee Mike Pompeo’s Senate confirmation hearing pressed the former CIA director over the long-term White House strategy for dealing with the Syria crisis, while House Democrats pressed Mr. Mattis about what any imminent military strike might accomplish.
“Until we have a more long-term strategy, until we have some idea where we’re going in Syria and the Middle East, it seems unwise, to me, to start launching missiles,” said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. “We need to know where that’s going, what the purpose of it is before we take that act.”
The U.S. is also under pressure to achieve more with this strike than with the 59 cruise missiles Mr. Trump launched last year after a reported chemical weapons attack by Syrian forces, which apparently did not deter Mr. Assad for long.
A spokesman for the prime minister said the British Cabinet agreed that it was “highly likely” that Damascus was responsible for last weekend’s attack, which killed up to 75 people in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma.
The British Cabinet said “it was vital that the use of chemical weapons did not go unchallenged” and that Britain and its allies must deter the further use of chemical weapons by Mr. Assad’s forces.
Mr. Macron went further, saying France had “proof that chemical weapons were used, at least chlorine,” but added that his country was wary of being dragged into a U.S.-Russia proxy war in Syria.
Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, urged U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to hold an emergency open meeting to address the crisis. He also highlighted the need for inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to have the time and resources to determine what happened in Douma.
“The immediate priority is to avert the danger of war,” Mr. Nebenzia said.
There were signs of a global effort to head off a direct confrontation between Russia and the West. The Kremlin said a crisis communications link with the United States, created to avoid an accidental clash over Syria, was in use.
Losing a ‘bet’
Mr. Assad said Thursday that Western countries were lashing out after they lost their “bet” on opposition forces in the eastern Ghouta suburbs of the capital. Russia, whose military is backing Mr. Assad, has said Syrian forces have taken full control of Douma since the attack.
With the relocation of rebel forces in the aftermath of the Douma attack, the government controls virtually all of the area around the capital and most of Syria’s major cities.
Moscow is estimated to have dozens of aircraft at its Hmeimim air base in Syria, including fighters and bombers, as well as 10 to 15 warships and support vessels in the Mediterranean.
The Syrian government and Russian forces in Syria possess truck-mounted surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery weapons systems.
Russia, Syria and Iran have said reports of the Douma attack were fabricated by rebels and rescue workers and that the United States wants to use the incident as a pretext to attack the Syrian government.
Whether or not Mr. Trump was hinting at potential military action, he made a point to refer to his $700 billion military buildup during a Rose Garden event on tax cuts Thursday afternoon.
“We’re going to have the strongest military that we’ve ever had,” Mr. Trump said. “And can you think of a better time to have it? Right? This is when we need it.”
Earlier Thursday, Mr. Trump told reporters that he would make a decision “fairly soon” on the U.S. response.
“We’re looking very seriously at that situation,” Mr. Trump said. “It’s too bad the world puts us in a position like that.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Trump warned Syria and Russia that missiles “will be coming.” He moderated that warning Thursday, tweeting, “Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”
According the World Health Organization, the harrowing attack in Douma killed about 70 people sheltering in basements, with 43 showing signs of exposure to “highly toxic chemicals.”
Two U.S. officials familiar with an ongoing investigation of samples from Douma and the symptoms of victims said initial indications that a mix of weaponized chlorine gas and sarin were used in the attack appear to be correct. But U.S. intelligence agencies have not completed their assessment or reached a final conclusion, the officials said.
Russia said it deployed military police in Douma on Thursday after government forces took control.
“They are the guarantors of law and order in the town,” RIA news agency quoted Russia’s defense ministry as saying.
While the Netherlands-based OPCW said in a statement on Thursday that a special fact-finding mission is on its way and will start investigating Saturday, mistrust and lies among the warring parties spilled over as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned Mr. Assad and Syria’s “supporters Iran and Russia” to allow international observers and medical assistance into area around the suspected chemical attack.
Speaking in New York on Thursday, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations countered that his country will facilitate a visit by international chemical weapons inspectors at “any point they want.”
Bashar Ja’afari said visas for the OPCW inspection team were already being provided and that any delay or “disruption of their visit” would be a result of “political pressure” from Western countries, which Syria accuses of politicizing the issue.
• Dan Boylan contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.