Trump Condemns Syria Chemical Attack: McCain Blames Trump
April 6, 2017
BBC World News & Barbara Plett Usher / BBC World News
Donald Trump has condemned the killing of dozens of civilians in northern Syria in an apparent chemical weapons attack by Syria's air force, calling it an "affront to humanity." Meanwhile, hawkish Republican Senator John McCain argues that the Trump administration's "hands-off" approach to Bashar al-Assad emboldened the Syrian President to carry out atrocities like the chemical attack for which he's being blamed.
Syria Chemical 'Attack':
Trump Condemns 'Affront to Humanity'
BBC World News
(April 5, 2017) -- US President Donald Trump has condemned the killing of dozens of civilians in northern Syria in an apparent chemical weapons attack by Syria's air force.
It was an "affront to humanity", he said, adding: "When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, little babies . . . that crosses . . . many lines."
He did not mention Russia, Syria's ally, which says chemical weapons in rebel hands may have been released. But America's envoy to the UN accused Russia of covering up for Damascus.
"Time and time again Russia uses the same false narrative to deflect attention from their ally in Damascus," Nikki Haley said during a heated UN Security Council debate in New York.
Hinting at possible unilateral action by the US, she added: "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."
The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denies its forces launched a chemical weapons attack.
According to UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 20 children and 52 adults were killed in the chemical incident in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib province, on Tuesday.
Footage following the incident shows civilians, many of them children, choking and foaming at the mouth.
Both the World Health Organisation and medical charity MSF said some of the victims had symptoms consistent with exposure to nerve agents. Witnesses say clinics treating the injured were then targeted by air strikes.
Will There Be a Change in US Policy?
Mr. Trump said: "I will tell you, it's already happened, that my attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much . . . You're now talking about a whole different level."
Asked during a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah at the White House whether he was formulating a new policy towards Syria, Mr. Trump told reporters, "You'll see."
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Russia to "think carefully" about its continued support for President Assad. "There's no doubt in our mind that the Syrian regime under the leadership of Bashar al-Assad is responsible for this horrific attack," said Mr. Tillerson, who is due to visit Moscow next week.
Only last week, Ms. Haley said the US was no longer prioritising the removal of President Assad, a shift in US policy from the Obama era.
What Do the Russians Say?
Russia has acknowledged that Syrian planes did attack Khan Sheikhoun but says the aircraft struck a depot producing chemical weapons, for use by militants in Iraq.
On Tuesday "Syrian aviation made a strike on a large terrorist ammunition depot and a concentration of military hardware in the eastern outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun town," Russian defence ministry spokesman Igor Konoshenkov said. "On the territory of the depot there were workshops which produced chemical warfare munitions."
How Does the Russian Theory Stack Up?
A chemical weapons expert, Col Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, told the BBC the Russian version of events was "pretty fanciful". The idea that a nerve gas like Sarin could spread after a weapons manufacturing process had been bombed was "unsustainable", he added.
Hasan Haj Ali, commander of the Free Idlib Army rebel group, told Reuters news agency: "Everyone saw the plane while it was bombing with gas." However, the official who led the UN-backed operation to remove Syria's chemical weapons told the UK's Channel 4 News that the Russian version of events could not be discounted.
"If it is Sarin that was stored there and conventional munitions were used, there is every possibility that some of those [chemical] munitions were not consumed and that the Sarin liquid was ejected and could well have affected the population," Jerry Smith said.
Local journalists say there are no military positions in the town itself but an array of broadly aligned rebel groups controlling the area surrounding it. Critics of the Russian statement say reports of the release of gas came hours before the times stated by Mr. Konoshenkov.
Has Assad Used Chemical Weapons Before?
The Syrian government was accused by Western powers of firing rockets filled with Sarin at Ghouta, Damascus, killing hundreds of people in August 2013. President Assad denied the charge, blaming rebel fighters, but he did subsequently agree to destroy Syria's chemical arsenal. Despite that, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has continued to document the use of toxic chemicals in attacks in Syria.
More than 250,000 people have been killed in Syria's civil war and, after more than six years, no political solution to the fighting is in sight.
Aftermath of attack in pictures(Warning: graphic images)
Syria Chemical 'Attack': Is Trump Partly to Blame?
Barbara Plett Usher / BBC World News
(April 5, 2017) -- There is an argument that the Trump administration's "hands-off" approach to Bashar al-Assad emboldened the Syrian President to carry out atrocities like the chemical attack for which he's being blamed.
The hawkish Republican Senator John McCain is among those making it.
He cites as particularly damaging recent comments by Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state said that the "longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people", backing off Barack Obama's initial rallying cry that "Assad must go."
The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is also pushing that line. "Idlib attack is a crime against humanity," he tweeted. "Those saying Syrian people will decide Assad's future: no people will remain if attacks continue."
Tillerson's statement was amplified last week by the UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who confirmed that Assad's removal was no longer a US priority. In fact, that's been the case for a long time.
Obama's policy on Assad evolved, shaped by Russia's entry into the war on the side of the Syrian regime, and by his administration's growing focus on the fight against the Islamic State group.
"Everything is done through a counter-terrorism lens," a US official who worked closely with these issues told me in December. "Would they like Assad to go away? Yes, but only if they feel that wouldn't undermine US interests as they define it."
Given these realities, Obama's Secretary of State John Kerry concentrated on what he thought was achievable -- de-escalating the violence and getting some sort of political process off the ground in co-ordination with the Russians.
He crystallised this quiet policy shift in December 2015, when he accepted Moscow's demand that Assad's fate be determined by his people. Noting that the removal of the president was a "non-starter" as a pre-condition for talks, he said the focus was on facilitating a peace process in which "Syrians will be making decisions for the future of Syria".
Yes, but there's a difference.
The Obama administration, especially Kerry, continued to emphasize that Assad was responsible for the bulk of the violence in Syria, that his brutality fed the extremism that spawned the Islamic State group, and that there could be no peace if he continued in power.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, has been ambivalent, very publicly washing his hands of the issue. He's endorsed Russia's support of the Syrian leader as producing a team that can fight IS militants, and stated that the US has "bigger problems than Assad". His anti-IS policy is the clear priority, propelled by the military campaigns in Mosul and Raqqa.
Meanwhile his review of overall Syria policy, including the political negotiations, languishes on the back burner. To what degree, if any, Trump has contributed to Assad's sense of impunity will remain a matter of debate. But the chemical attack has exposed the disconnect in his policy.
It demonstrates that Assad and the civil war cannot be neatly separated from the battle against Islamic State militants, and highlights the importance of investing diplomacy in a political solution to resolve the conflict.
The atrocity has triggered tough rhetoric and vague threats of action from the White House. The president said it had changed his view of Assad and Syria. He warned that the regime had crossed a line, although he didn't say if it was a red one.
But a recent statement by his UN ambassador was a more candid sign that this administration is beginning to appreciate the nature of the problem with which Obama and Kerry long wrestled.
"I think the dilemma everyone has," Nikki Haley said," is how do you deal with a government that we wish wasn't there… It's a hard answer, no matter which way you look at it."
It seems the attack has at least focused minds on the question.
Barbara Plett Usher is the BBC State Department correspondent
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