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McCain: Trump's Withdrawal Talk 'Emboldened' Assad and Backers to Gas Civilians

WASHINGTON -- Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) charged that President Trump's rhetoric this month about pulling the U.S. out of Syria "emboldened" the dictator there to gas civilians in Douma.

Initial reports indicate the agent used may have been sarin or a mix of sarin and chlorine. Dozens of people were killed a year ago when sarin was dropped on Khan Shaykhun. The Saturday attack on Douma has killed at least 42.

At a campaign-rally-style speech in Ohio before spring break, Trump said, "And, by the way, we're knocking the hell out of ISIS. We'll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon. Very soon, we're coming out. We're going to have 100 percent of the caliphate, as they call it -- sometimes referred to as 'land.' We're taking it all back quickly. Quickly. But we're going to be coming out of there real soon. We're going to get back to our country, where we belong, where we want to be."

Trump continued to express his desire to pull out, though last week reportedly dropped his insistence for an immediate withdrawal on the objections of military leaders who cautioned that the job is not done there yet. ISIS maintains positions in the Middle Euphrates River Valley and south Damascus, and the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces have had some of their manpower pulled away from the MERV fight to defend Kurdish cities from a Turkish onslaught.

Trump tweeted Sunday, "Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay. Open area immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!"

"If President Obama had crossed his stated Red Line In The Sand, the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago! Animal Assad would have been history!" Trump added. Trump tweeted multiple times in 2013 that Obama should not "attack Syria," as "there is no upside and tremendous downside."

McCain said Sunday that Trump "signaled to the world that the United States would prematurely withdraw from Syria," and "Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers have heard him, and emboldened by American inaction, Assad has reportedly launched another chemical attack against innocent men, women and children, this time in Douma."

"Initial accounts show dozens of innocent civilians, including children, have been targeted by this vicious bombardment designed to burn and choke the human body and leave victims writhing in unspeakable pain," McCain said in a statement Sunday. “Crimes against humanity have become Assad’s trademarks in his relentless campaign against the people of Syria that has killed more than half a million people and forced 11 million from their homes."

"President Trump was quick to call out Assad today, along with the Russian and Iranian governments, on Twitter. The question now is whether he will do anything about it. The president responded decisively when Assad used chemical weapons last year. He should do so again, and demonstrate that Assad will pay a price for his war crimes."

McCain acknowledged that Trump "inherited bad options after years of inaction by his predecessor in Syria," and "history will render a bitter judgment on America for that failure."

"But no one should believe we are out of options," he added. "We can and should change course – starting with a comprehensive strategy that lays out clear objectives for our mission there. It's not too late to stop Assad's impunity and begin to rewrite this terrible chapter in our history.”

Over in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) noted that the Assad regime "has committed its latest war crime" and "the world must hold Assad and his enablers in Russia and Iran responsible for this.”

Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) noted that Assad is "completely reliant on lifelines from Russia and Iran" and said that "this latest catastrophe is proof that a limited use of military force in Syria without a broad and fully-resourced diplomatic strategy, as President Trump chose to do in April of 2017, was ineffective."

"To make matters worse, the president’s recent plans to freeze U.S. assistance to the Syrian people, and the administration’s failure to put forth a comprehensive plan, other than calling for an ‘immediate response,’ are the latest missteps in their calamitous retreat from American leadership around the world," Menendez added. “The United States must not waiver in our utter rejection of the use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world, by anyone, for any reason. During his upcoming hearing, I expect Secretary of State-nominee Pompeo to articulate an actual policy for Syria.”

French President Emanuel Macron advocated coordinating "a strong, joint response" against the gas attack. British Prime Minister Theresa May said, "This is a brutal regime that is attacking its own people and we are very clear that it must be held to account and its backers must be held to account too."