The United States and Russia traded conflicting assertions Wednesday about who launched a chemical weapons attack in Syria that killed 72 people, as world leaders grasped for a response to the latest atrocity in Syria’s intractable civil war.
The Trump administration stood by its charge that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces were responsible.
Not so, said Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally. Russia’s military insisted that the chemicals were dispersed when Syrian warplanes bombed a facility where rebels were building chemical weapons.
At the United Nations, President Donald Trump’s envoy threatened unilateral U.S. action if the world body failed to act.
“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,” declared Ambassador Nikki Haley.
She addressed an emergency meeting of the Security Council, which was weighing a resolution condemning chemical weapons use in Syria. Russia, which has veto power, is opposed.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova focused her attention elsewhere: “It’s necessary to demand that the rebels offer full access to study the area and collect necessary information.”
Leaders and officials in other countries, including Britain and Israel, joined the U.S. in saying Assad’s forces were responsible.
A U.S. official said an American review of radar and other assessments showed Syrian aircraft flying in the area at the time of the attack. Russian and coalition aircraft were not there at that time, said the official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss intelligence publicly and requested anonymity. Washington hasn’t yet concluded what type of chemical was used.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump split the blame between Syria’s embattled leader and former President Barack Obama for the country’s worst chemical weapons attack in years.
While calling the attack “reprehensible” and intolerable, Trump said Obama “did nothing” after Assad crossed the former U.S. leader’s “red line” in 2013.
“These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution,” Trump said.
The political tone of Trump’s statement took many U.S. officials by surprise. They noted that U.S. presidents have rarely attacked their predecessors so aggressively for events like chemical weapons attacks that Democrats and Republicans both abhor.
Several officials involved in internal administration discussions said Trump’s National Security Council had been preparing a different statement, until the president’s closest advisers took over the process. The officials weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.
The president’s eldest daughter and top adviser, Ivanka Trump, took a more compassionate tone, tweeting Wednesday, “Heartbroken and outraged by the images coming out of Syria following the atrocious chemical attack yesterday.”
At least 72 people died in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. The World Health Organization said victims seemed to show symptoms consistent with nerve agent exposure. Videos from the scene showed volunteer medics using firehoses to wash the chemicals from victims’ bodies and lifeless children being piled in heaps.
A flurry of activity across the U.S. government signaled fresh urgency on the Syria crisis. Days earlier, White House and others officials suggested removing Assad from power was no longer a priority.
They said the focus was defeating the Islamic State (IS) militant group.
Trump was expected to face questions on the attack Wednesday afternoon during a joint news conference with visiting King Abdullah II of Jordan.
And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson planned to discuss the attack and the Syria crisis next week when he makes his first official trip to Moscow, the State Department said.
For Trump’s critics, though, it wasn’t enough. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., criticized the White House by noting that Trump hadn’t mentioned Russian President Vladimir Putin or Russia’s role in the U.S. response. Tillerson accused both Russia and Iran, Syria’s other top ally, of sharing moral responsibility in his own statement Tuesday.
“This was a moment the president could have spoken with moral authority and with the beginning of an outline of a strategy,” Casey said. “And we don’t see it.”
Four years ago, after warning Assad that a chemical attack would cross a red line and trigger U.S. action, Obama failed to follow through.
Rather than authorising military action against Assad in response to a sarin gas attack that killed hundreds outside Damascus, Obama opted instead for a Russia-backed agreement to remove Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
That was seen internationally as a major blow to U.S. credibility and, for Obama’s critics, a prime example of weak leadership. Syrian chemical weapons attacks continued after the deal.
Yet Trump was in agreement with Obama’s ultimate decision. Among his tweets on the matter, he urged Obama in all caps, “do not attack Syria, if you do many very bad things will happen.”