As global outrage surged over an apparent chemical attack that killed dozens in Syria, President Trump said Wednesday that the incident “crosses many, many lines” and had “changed very much” his attitude toward Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Trump offered no concrete American response, but horrific images of slain children and Syrian adults desperately gasping for breath — and evidence that banned sarin gas might have been used — have put pressure on Trump and his government to respond.
While trying to shift blame to former President Obama, Trump also acknowledged that “the responsibility is now mine.”
Trump on Tuesday had attacked Obama for failing to make good in 2013 on a threat to punish any use of chemical weapons by Syria, what Obama called his “red line.” On Wednesday, Trump used similar language in declaring that his attitude toward Syria and Assad — blamed for most of the atrocities in the war — had “changed very much.”
The deadly attack “crossed a lot of lines for me,” Trump said at a brief White House Rose Garden news conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah II. “When you kill innocent children ... little babies with a chemical gas that is so lethal ... that crosses many, many lines. Beyond a red line, many, many lines.”
The United States has launched thousands of airstrikes against Islamic State militants across Syria and Iraq, but until now has not launched direct attacks targeting the Syrian government. Trump’s use of Obama’s phrase, “red line” — in response to questions from reporters — hinted that he might be weighing a stronger response.
He was unclear, however, about what actions he might take, saying only that he remained “flexible” and would not telegraph possible future operations. Military retaliation is problematic, however, because it would draw the U.S. into more direct confrontation with Assad’s chief backer, Russia, whom Trump would like to make an ally.
“These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated,” he said.
The Obama administration’s position was that Assad had to be removed, but Trump officials have been backing away from that demand.
Later Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made his first on-camera remarks about the attack — and cited Russia’s role, which Trump had ignored.
“There’s no doubt in our mind that the Syrian regime under the leadership of Bashar al Assad is responsible for this horrific attack,” Tillerson said during a photo-op with the foreign secretary of Mexico, Luis Videgaray. “We think it's time that the Russians really need to think carefully about their continued support for the Assad regime."
Tillerson is scheduled to travel to Moscow next week.
Meanwhile, at the United Nations in New York, the yawning gap between how the United States and Russia see events in Syria was on full display.
During an emergency meeting of the Security Council, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley stood before the assembled body and held aloft gruesome photographs of victims from the deadly attack.
“We cannot close our eyes to those pictures,” Haley said. “We cannot close our minds” to actions that must be taken. “The truth is Syria, Russia and Iran have no interest in peace,” Haley said. Iran also supports Syria’s Assad.
Haley hinted that if the U.N. Security Council again failed to act — Russia routinely vetoes resolutions that punish Syria — the United States might do so.
“When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action,” she said. “For the sake of the victims, I hope the rest of the council is finally willing to do the same.”
Defense Secretary James N. Mattis was asked about a possible U.S. response.
"It was a heinous act and will be treated as such," Mattis said at the Pentagon.
The exact composition of the toxic substance that killed more than 70 people in the northwest Syrian province of Idlib was still being investigated Wednesday, but U.S. intelligence officials said they believed it was probably sarin gas, possibly mixed with chlorine.
At the U.N., the United States occupies the rotating presidency of the Security Council. Haley called the emergency meeting and U.S. officials said they fought to have the Syria gathering as an open session. The meeting adjourned before noon for the council’s 15 members to debate a resolution drafted by the U.S., Britain and France, and a vote could come as early as Wednesday evening, officials said.
But there were early indications that the same hurdle the council has always faced on Syria — vetoes by China and Russia — would stymie immediate action regarding the suspected chemical gas attack.
"This body has always been eloquent" in its condemnations, Ukraine's ambassador, Volodymyr Yelchenko, said. "But that's about it. There is an outstanding gap between talk and action."
British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft also scolded the council's inability to stop the slaughter of Syrians or the apparent use of illegal chemical weapons.
He noted the Security Council's failure in February to condemn an earlier attack by forces loyal to Assad. The censure was vetoed by China and Russia.
"Yesterday we saw the consequences of those vetoes," he said.
The Russian representative, Vladimir Safronkov, was eager to cast doubt on the attack, suggesting it was the work of "terrorists" fighting Assad and asserting that witness accounts were unreliable claims from "discredited" organizations. He blasted the Security Council discussion as a "clearly ideological" discussion "closely interwoven with the anti-Damascus movement.”
Haley retorted: "Time and time again, [Russia] uses the same false narrative ... and attempts to place the blame on others."
Moscow and Damascus were vehemently denying the use of chemical weapons.
Russian army Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov was quoted by the Russian state news agency Tass as claiming that Syrian aviation carried out an airstrike “targeting a major ammunition storage facility of terrorists and a cluster of military hardware.”
In all, 72 people were killed, including 20 children and 17 women, after an airstrike on Khan Sheikhoun, according to the monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Medical sources, the observatory said, had reported victims struggling to breathe and displaying constricted pupils and other symptoms consistent with an attack with poison gas.
Other activists put the death toll at more than 100 and claimed that sarin gas, a colorless, odorless agent that is lethal if inhaled or touches the skin, had been deployed in the strike.
In Washington, a senior State Department official dismissed the Russian claims. “Anyone with common sense and the ability to look at pictures knows that what the Russians are saying about the depot [storage facility] is not true," the official said.
Hussein Kayyal, a media activist with the pro-opposition Edlib Media Center, said warplanes had struck Khan Sheikhoun again Wednesday with heavy machine guns.
“They [Russian warplanes] struck it in the morning,” said Kayyal in a phone interview on Wednesday. However, there were no casualties “because most people, roughly 80% of people in the town, had left.”
Staffan de Mistura, U.N. special envoy for Syria, called for a “credible investigation” of the “horrific” act. He was speaking in Brussels, where international diplomats were scheduled to come together to discuss humanitarian aid for the war-battered country.
The meeting, also aimed at trying to revive peace talks, went ahead despite the attack, which nevertheless overshadowed it. Ministers from the European Union, the U.S. and several Middle Eastern states pledged $6 billion in aid.
Arab countries in attendance, like Lebanon, called for more support to care for the millions of refugees they are sheltering. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini wanted ministers at the Brussels conference to consider how they could help reconstruct Syria after the violent conflict there ends. But several ministers indicated that they would not pay for reconstruction until there is a political solution to the conflict.
Public outrage surged in the U.S. and abroad, with criticism for Trump from both sides of the political spectrum.
"This was a moment the president could have spoken with moral authority and with the beginning of an outline of a strategy," said Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania. "And we don't see it."
“There needs to be a level of outrage,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “This needs to become a priority. Otherwise, we have lost our compass as a people and as a nation.”