WASHINGTON — A new apparent chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians prompted lawmakers to criticize the Trump administration for days ago demoting the priority of unseating Bashar al-Assad, while the White House blamed the Obama administration for not enforcing the chemical weapons red line in 2013.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said they have documented at least 58 deaths, including 19 children and 13 women, from the Khan Shaykhun area of southern Idlib after warplanes bombed civilians “with material believed to be gases which caused suffocation and other symptoms, like intense breathing secretion, iris shrinkage, general spasm.” Video posted by Dr. Shajul Islam, a UK-trained physician administering humanitarian assistance in northern Syria, showed chaos unfolding in his emergency room:
About 300 were injured, according to the health directorate in Idlib. One hospital treating the wounded and a Syrian Civil Defense emergency services center were subsequently rocked by airstrikes a few hours later. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is already working to verify what kind of agent may have been dropped from the warplanes.
Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres, said the UN leader was “deeply disturbed” by the reports and “recalls that the Security Council previously determined that the use of chemical weapons anywhere constitutes a threat to international peace and security and, that it affirmed that the use of chemical weapons constitutes a serious violation of international law.” The UN Security Council has scheduled an emergency meeting for Wednesday morning.
French President Francois Hollande quickly blamed Assad for the “massacre,” slamming the “complicity” and “moral responsibility” of his “allies.” British Prime Minister Theresa May, in Saudi Arabia, said “we cannot allow this suffering to continue.”
“I’m very clear that there can be no future for Assad in a stable Syria which is representative of all the Syrian people,” May said. “And I call on all the third parties involved to ensure that we have a transition away from Assad.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson noted, “Bombing your own civilians with chemical weapons is unquestionably a war crime and they must be held to account.”
Israel’s minister of education and leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party Naftali Bennett called on President Trump to lead the response, tweeting a photo of children’s bodies with the message: “Children are choking to death. The world MUST ACT against the chemical massacre in Syria. I call upon President Trump to lead this effort.”
Trump’s initial response came in an afternoon statement released by the White House.
“Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world. These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution,” Trump said. “President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.”
After the Ghouta sarin attack in 2013 that killed nearly 1,500 people, by U.S. estimates, Trump commented on Obama’s decision to cut a deal brokered by Russia to ostensibly remove Assad’s chemical weapons instead of striking Assad. “President Obama’s weakness and indecision may have saved us from doing a horrible and very costly (in more ways than money) attack on Syria!” Trump tweeted Sept. 1, 2013.
“President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your ‘powder’ for another (and more important) day!” Trump tweeted six days later.
At a Thursday media appearance in Turkey, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked about UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s comments that the U.S. was not going to focus any more on removing Assad. “I think the status and the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people,” Tillerson said before ending the press conference.
Tillerson did not respond to questions about Syria while appearing today with Jordanian King Abdullah. The State Department later issued a statement from the secretary emphasizing that the United States “strongly condemns the chemical weapons attack in Idlib province, the third allegation of the use of such weapons in the past month alone.”
“There are reports of dozens dead, including many children. While we continue to monitor the terrible situation, it is clear that this is how Bashar al-Assad operates: with brutal, unabashed barbarism,” Tillerson said. “Those who defend and support him, including Russia and Iran, should have no illusions about Assad or his intentions. Anyone who uses chemical weapons to attack his own people shows a fundamental disregard for human decency and must be held accountable.”
“It is also clear that this horrific conflict, now in its seventh year, demands a genuine ceasefire and the supporters of the armed combatants in the region need to ensure compliance,” he added. “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. As the self-proclaimed guarantors to the ceasefire negotiated in Astana, Russia and Iran also bear great moral responsibility for these deaths.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) noted that with Obama’s red line “far in the rear-view mirror, Assad believes he can commit war crimes with impunity.”
“The question that confronts the United States now is whether we will take any action to disabuse him of this murderous notion,” McCain said. “Aided and abetted by Putin’s Russia, the Iranian regime, and its terrorist proxies, Assad will resort to any form of butchery he believes necessary to preserve his dictatorship, from chemical weapons to barrel bombs to torture chambers like Saydnaya prison.”
The senator added a dig at Tillerson’s previous statement: “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. The recent statements by U.S. officials suggesting otherwise only serve to legitimize the actions of this war criminal in Damascus.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) underscored that “only the Assad regime operates aircraft and have been confirmed to have used air-dropped chemical weapons.”
“Make no mistake: The Assad regime is deliberately testing the new administration and its resolve. 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,” Cardin said. “The world is watching. The United States must lead the international community and insist on holding Assad accountable for his war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
“I hope the administration will clarify its position on Assad,” he added. “He has no role in a future Syria.”
Said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.): “With more than 480,000 people killed by the regime, and 14 million driven from their homes, it is clear there is no hope for real peace in Syria until Assad is held accountable.”