The attack “is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world," President Donald Trump said in a statement on Tuesday. “These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution," he added, suggesting the Obama administration missed an opportunity that is now gone to push harder for the removal of the Syrian president.
“There is not a fundamental option of regime change as there has been in the past," White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters ahead of Trump’s statement, adding that the US believes it would be better for the Syrian people if Assad were gone.
The comments are the latest signal that the US acknowledges Assad’s ability to remain in power despite a six-year civil war that saw much of his country fall into rebel and terrorist hands before Russia intervened on his behalf in 2015. While then-President Barack Obama said “Assad must go" in 2011, the US and an alliance of rebels it backed never mounted a successful campaign to overthrow him.
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The Trump administration’s statements received backlash from Republicans and Democrats in Congress who have called for a muscular response by the US.
Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said the Trump administration should keep “all options on the table" and stand by the stated US policy that Assad must leave power.
“Now President Trump is the president, not President Obama," Cotton said Wednesday on MSNBC. “Ultimately, we cannot expect to be safe ourselves from the threats emanating from the Middle East as long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power."
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said Tuesday that the Trump administration’s recent statements that Assad’s fate was up to the Syrian people “only serve to legitimize the action of this war criminal."
“In case it was not already painfully obvious: The notion that the Syrian people would be able to decide the fate of Assad or the future of their country under these conditions is an absurd fiction," McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said.
Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, said the Trump administration has been unwilling to take on the Assad regime because of the president’s desire to appease Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The administration’s decision to try to cozy up to Russia means that they’re not willing to call a humanitarian war crime exactly what it is," Kaine said Wednesday on MSNBC.
Tuesday’s apparent gas attack drew fury from world leaders and prompted the United Nations Security Council to call an emergency session for Wednesday. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said its on-the-ground sources reported that one neighbourhood “was bombed with material believed to be gases which caused suffocation and other symptoms, like intense breathing secretion, iris shrinkage, pail, general spasm, and other symptoms."
“I’m appalled by the reports that there’s been a chemical weapons attack on a town south of Idlib allegedly by the Syrian regime," UK Prime Minister Theresa May said while on a trip to Saudi Arabia. “We cannot allow this suffering to continue."
The Syrian Observatory said warplanes attacked the area but it didn’t identify them. Russia’s defence ministry rejected the claim that its planes attacked a northern Syrian town with chemical weapons, the Associated Press reported. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is investigating the incident, according to a statement on its website.
US secretary of state Rex Tillerson called on Russia and Iran, Assad’s main backers, to rein in the Syrian leader, saying the two nations “bear great moral responsibility for these deaths."
“Those who defend and support him, including Russia and Iran, should have no illusions about Assad or his intentions," Tillerson said in a statement. “We call upon Russia and Iran, yet again, to exercise their influence over the Syrian regime and to guarantee that this sort of horrific attack never happens again."
United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres was “deeply disturbed" at the incident, even though the world body was not in a position “to independently verify reports" of the chemical attack, according to UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric. If confirmed, the attack “constitutes a serious violation of international law."
Obama’s ‘red line’
The attack appeared to be the largest chemical attack in Syria since August 2013, when more than 1,000 people were killed in the Damascus suburbs by the banned toxin sarin. Obama had called Assad’s use of chemical weapons a “red line" that would prompt a military response, but under threat of US action, Assad agreed to a US-Russian deal to eliminate his stockpile of chemical weapons.
In June 2014, the OPCW said it had removed all of Assad’s chemical stockpiles. However, after repeated reports of chlorine bomb attacks, the security council authorized the OPCW to investigate reports of chemical weapons use by Syrian regime.
A joint OPCW-UN panel determined in August 2016 that the Syrian government used chlorine gas on at least two occasions in 2014 and 2015. Last February, Russia and China vetoed a security council resolution to sanction members of Assad regime. Bloomberg
Donna Abu-Nasr, Nick Wadhams, Alex Morales and Toluse Olorunnipa also contributed to this story.