By: Fern Sidman
President Donald Trump says his administration will likely say “after the fact” how it decided to respond to a suspected chemical attack on the outskirts of Syria’s capital.
“It will be met, and it will be met forcefully,” Trump said before meeting with senior military leaders late Monday. He highlighted what he said was the power of the United States to stop atrocities like the attack Saturday in rebel-held eastern Ghouta that killed at least 40 people.
“We have a lot of options, militarily,” he said, without giving specifics. Last year, he ordered missile strikes on a Syrian airfield believed by the U.S. to have been used for the launch of another chemical attack. Trump was critical of former president Obama for what he said was a failing strategy of publicizing planned military maneuvers ahead of time.
Syria has denied using chemical weapons throughout the conflict that began in 2011, including the most recent suspected chemical attack. Russia said there is no evidence Syria carried out such an attack. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday the United States has taken an unconstructive position and is refusing to face reality.
Trump said Monday, “We are getting some very good clarity,” regarding who was responsible, a task that has been difficult throughout the Syrian war and the source of conflict among the many international players involved.
Earlier he told his Cabinet at a White House meeting that the U.S. would figure out who was responsible for the attack, whether it was Syria, Russia, Iran or “all of them together.”
The U.S. has also requested that the U.N. Security Council vote Tuesday afternoon on a resolution calling for a new investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria. A resolution would need nine votes and no vetoes by Russia, Britain, China or the U.S. to be approved. Russia says it does not agree with the U.S. draft.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the council in a statement Tuesday to “redouble its efforts to agree upon a dedicated mechanism for accountability.”
A global chemical weapons watchdog said Tuesday it will send a team to the Syrian town of Douma to investigate the poison gas attack.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said it would go to Douma after an appeal to do so.
“This has coincided with the request from the Syrian Arab Republic and the Russian Federation to investigate the allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma,” OPCW said. “The team is preparing to deploy to Syria shortly.”
Moscow’s envoy Vassily Nebenzia said that Russian experts have already visited the site, collected soil samples, interviewed witnesses and medical personnel, and have concluded that no chemical weapons attack had taken place.
Meanwhile, on the domestic front, the White House announced that President Trump would be canceling a scheduled trip to Latin America in order to “oversee the American response to Syria.”
In a related development, it was reported on Tuesday that Tom Bossert, President Trump’s top Homeland Security adviser, abruptly resigned in the latest in a long line of senior officials to leave the Trump administration.
No reason was given for his resignation, but it came a day after former UN ambassador John Bolton assumed his new role as Trump’s third national security adviser in the 15 months of his presidency. Both Bloomberg News and CNN reported that Bossert was quitting at Bolton’s request.
The 43-year-old Bossert had served in Trump’s White House since his inauguration, a key adviser to the president on cyber security, who also was a prominent official in handling the government’s response last year to devastating hurricanes in Texas, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
“The president is grateful for Tom’s commitment to the safety and security of our great country.” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said. “Tom led the White House’s efforts to protect the homeland from terrorist threats, strengthen our cyber defenses, and respond to an unprecedented series of natural disasters. President Trump thanks him for his patriotic service and wishes him well.”
U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told the Security Council on Monday that both Russia and Iran could stop the Syrian government’s “murderous destruction,” adding that Moscow’s hands are “covered in the blood of Syrian children.”
Britain says Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson spoke to Acting Secretary of State John Sullivan by phone and the two “agreed that, based on current media reports and reports from those on the ground, this attack bore hallmarks of previous chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime.”
French President Emmanuel Macron has also spoken by telephone with Trump several times to coordinate their response to Saturday’s attack.
Cecile Shea, a non-resident fellow in global security and diplomacy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, also said Syria is likely responsible, citing a lack of other forces capable of manufacturing and deploying such chemical weapons.
“But I think we really need to find out as quickly as we can what the hallmarks of this attack were, and I do believe that we will be able to figure out if it was an attack by the Assad regime,” Shea told VOA. “And if it was, then that is an example of a nation violating a treaty that has been in force for 95 years, a general rule of law and just fundamental strictures of humanity. And then I think the president and our allies should take action together to punish whoever did this.”
In terms of preparing for a possible US attack on Syrian soil, the Britain-Based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said that as of Monday night, troops have been on a 72-hour alert and are fortifying their positions, according to a Fox News report.
The report also indicated that the Sound and Picture Organization, an activist collective in eastern Syria, said on Tuesday that Iranian fighters and members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group have evacuated their positions in the Boukamal area, near Iraq’s border.
The UNHCR said of thousands of civilians remain trapped in eastern Ghouta after an estimated 133,000 left the enclave during the past four weeks. The agency reiterated calls for all sides in the conflict to protect civilians and allow them to move freely.
According to a TPS report, a Senior Iranian official has warned that Israel’s missile attack over the weekend on the Syrian T-4 airbase “will not remain without response,” Lebanon’s al-Mayaden television channel reported Tuesday afternoon.
Meanwhile, Israel’s ambassador to Russia, Gary Koren, was summoned to the foreign ministry in Moscow in the wake of the attack. Iran’s Tasnim news agency updated Tuesday that seven Iranians were among the dead and their bodies had been brought to Tehran for burial.
Russia also assigned blame to Israel for the attack overnight between Sunday and Monday, saying that two Israeli Air Force jets F-15 jets fired eight guided missiles from Lebanese airspace at the T-4 airfield between Homs and Palmyra some 250 kilometers from Damascus.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the strike on the base a “very dangerous development.”
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Israel did not inform Russia of the planned attack, calling Israel’s actions “a cause for concern”.
Kremlin officials said that no Russian advisers present at T-4 at the time of the attack were injured in the airstrike.
Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qassemi called the strike a “blatant violation of international law which would strengthen terrorists.”
Israeli officials have remained silent on the strike, however an INN report said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a cryptic reference to the incident, when, while speaking at a ceremony marking a major housing development in the southern city of Sderot, said, “We have one clear and simple rule and we seek to express it constantly: If someone tries to attack you – rise up and attack him.”
Former Israeli OC Southern Command Yoav Galant also alluded to the strike when at the same event he said “Syria cannot become a springboard for weapons transfers to Lebanon.”
According to an INN report, Security Cabinet member MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) responded on Facebook to the recent events in Syria.
“In 2012, then-IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz told me in a private conversation, ‘One day we will need to account to ourselves what we did during the time that, across the border, people were being massacred,’” Shelah wrote.
“He, and the politicians who were above him, thought that any Israeli intervention in the events in Syria–other than the red lines which were set then and are still relevant now, and which pertain to Israel’s obvious security interests–will not do any good, and may do bad. There was a completely understandable resistance to involving Israel in the civil war across the border. I admit, I thought the same.
“Today I am convinced that we should have acted. We should have banned flights, because only Assad’s murderous planes were flying in Syria’s skies back then. We should have done everything diplomatically possible, we should have declared that we would protect the civilians’ flight routes. There was no lack of ideas back then, either. And I admit, again, I thought differently. Or maybe I didn’t think enough.”
Shelah also emphasized that Israel is not responsible for the massacre, but should have done something, according to the INN report.
“It needs to be clear: Bashar al-Assad is the only one responsible for murdering over half a million of his people, while he receives protection from patrons in Moscow and Tehran. And Israel, first of all, has an obligation to protect its citizens and borders. I believe that war must be a last resort. But war isn’t the only way to act, and Israel is not a regular country,” he said.