Trump Says He Will Decide Soon on Response to Syria Chemical Attack

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WASHINGTON— President Donald Trump said Monday he is likely to make a decision by the end of the day about the U.S. response to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria that killed dozens of civilians.

In a cabinet meeting Monday, Mr. Trump denounced the weekend attack as “atrocious” and said he and his national security team would make a quick decision on how to respond after meeting with his top advisers. The national security team is crafting military options for the president, who could authorize a strike on Syria.

“We’ll be making that decision very quickly,” he said. “Probably by the end of today. We cannot allow atrocities like that.”

Mr. Trump cited the graphic images of dead women and children in vowing to take a forceful response.

“This is about humanity and it can’t be allowed to happen,” he said.

Mr. Trump is conferring with his cabinet, his top military leaders and officials from America’s closest allies as he considers the U.S. response. The United Nations Security Council was expected to hold an emergency meeting on Syria on Monday. The body wasn’t expected to take any decisive action because of resistance from Russia, which holds veto power on any Security Council actions.

“If it’s the Russians, if it’s Syria, if it’s Iran, if it’s all of them together, we’ll figure it out,” Mr. Trump said Monday.

Mr. Trump, asked whether Russian President Vladimir Putin bore any responsibility for the attack, said: “He may, yeah, he may.” He added: “And if he does it’s going to be very tough, very tough.”

“Everybody’s gonna pay a price,” Mr. Trump said. “He will, everybody will.”

A photo released by a civil-defense group operating in opposition-held areas showed smoke rising Saturday after Syrian government airstrikes hit a town east of Damascus.
A photo released by a civil-defense group operating in opposition-held areas showed smoke rising Saturday after Syrian government airstrikes hit a town east of Damascus.
Syria and Russia have both denied reports that Mr. Assad’s forces used chemical weapons in the attack on a rebel stronghold that killed dozens of men, women and children. Relief workers released jarring images of entire families felled by the strike. Some had foam bubbling from their mouths and noses, one sign that a deadly nerve agent had been used.

Medical experts and human rights groups said the preliminary evidence suggested that Mr. Assad used a nerve agent. On Monday, various American allies, including France, the U.K. and the European Union, coalesced around the conclusion that Mr. Assad carried out a chemical weapons strike.

Mr. Trump spoke Sunday with French President Emmanuel Macron and the two shared “analysis confirming the use of chemical weapons,” according to the French president’s office.

After a call between acting U.S. Secretary of State John Sullivan and the U.K.’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, a spokesman for the British foreign office said the two men agreed that “this attack bore hallmarks of previous chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime.”

The flurry of calls suggested that the U.S., U.K. and France are working to forge a unified response to the attack, possibly a coordinated strike targeting Syria.

On Monday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he wouldn’t rule out a military strike against Mr. Assad and blamed Russia for allowing Syria to use such weapons. In 2013, the U.S. and Russia agreed to a plan for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile by the following year.

“The first thing we have to look at is why are chemical weapons still being used at all when Russia was the framework guarantor of removing all the chemical weapons,” Mr. Mattis said at the Pentagon before meeting the emir of Qatar. “Working with our allies and our partners from NATO to Qatar and elsewhere, we are going to address this issue.”

The administration debate comes one week after Mr. Trump publicly vowed to quickly pull U.S. forces out of Syria, where about 2,000 troops are working alongside Kurdish and Arab fighters to eliminate the last pockets of Islamic State militants.

Mr. Trump’s push triggered a tense national security meeting in which the president pressed the military to wrap up the fight against Islamic State in six months, according to U.S. officials.

Top Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, suggested that Mr. Trump’s public pledge to withdraw from Syria had sent the wrong signal that Mr. Assad could use chemical weapons without fear of an American military response.

In light of the attack, they and other lawmakers said, Mr. Trump should reconsider his push to quickly get U.S. forces out of Syria.

Adding to the tension in Syria, a missile strike hit a Syrian military base used by Iranian forces early Monday morning local time, killing at least 14 people, including four Iranians, according to Iran’s semiofficial Fars News Agency.

Russia accused Israel of staging the strike, which didn’t appear to be directly related to the weekend strike. Israel declined to comment on the reports, but it has carried out scores of strikes in Syria.

The missile strike and suspected chemical attack came one year after Mr. Trump ordered the U.S. military to launch nearly 60 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base used by pilots who dropped chemical weapons in a strike that killed more than 80 people. The strike was meant to deter Mr. Assad from using chemical weapons, not force him from power.

At the time, Mr. Trump said he was moved to act by the graphic images of dead children and babies killed in the strike.

Over the weekend, Mr. Trump again cited the graphic images of dead children in vowing a forceful response.