A mid escalating global tensions over Syria, US President Donald Trump weighed his options for responding, possibly with military strikes, to the Syrian government’s suspected chemical weapons attack against civilians. He tweeted out an apparent warning that action was imminent, then changed his mind. Trump’s UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, said Friday the president has not yet made a final decision on how or whether to respond.Trump is expected to consult further with his national security team over the weekend.
Earlier this week, he tweeted that US missile strikes against Syria could happen “very soon or not so soon at all.” On Thursday, he met with his National Security Council and spoke by phone with the leaders of Britain and France, both of whom have indicated they want to punish Syria.
As Trump deliberated, the Navy said a second ship capable of firing Tomahawk cruise missiles had entered the Mediterranean. With the addition of the USS Winston S. Churchill, the US now has two ships potentially within range of Syria for firing Tomahawks, which were the weapon of choice when the US struck Syria in April 2017. Navy submarines also are capable of firing Tomahawks; their movements are kept secret but they are commonly in the Mediterranean.
Haley told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council yesterday that should the United States and its allies decide to act in Syria, it will be to defend “a bedrock international norm that benefits all nations” – the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.
She said that “the United States estimates that [President Bashar] al-Assad has used chemical weapons in the Syrian war at least 50 times.”
“All nations and all people will be harmed if we allow al-Assad to normalise the use of chemical weapons,” she added.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the Middle East is in such “peril” today that it has become a threat to international peace and security, and that Syria “represents the most serious threat.”
The US, France and Britain have been in extensive consultations about launching a military strike as early as the end of this week, US officials have said, in response to an alleged toxic gas attack in the rebel-held town of Douma that medics and rescuers said left at least 40 people dead on Saturday.
A joint military operation, possibly with France rather than the US in the lead, could send a message of international unity about enforcing the prohibitions on chemical weapons.
Trump spoke Thursday with British Prime Minister Theresa May, and the White House said afterward they continued their discussion the need for a joint response. The White House also confirmed that Trump had spoken with French President Emmanuel Macron.
Macron said Thursday that France has “proof” the Syrian government launched chlorine gas attacks and said France would not tolerate “regimes that think everything is permitted.”
Likewise, after May met with her Cabinet, a spokesperson issued a statement saying it is highly likely that al-Assad was responsible for Saturday’s attack. The Cabinet agreed on the need to “take action” to deter further chemical weapons use by al-Assad, but added that May would continue to consult with allies to coordinate a response.
The Russian military claimed yesterday that the alleged attack was staged and directed by Britain. A Russian Defence Ministry spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov, said Britain was “directly involved in the provocation,” but didn’t elaborate or provide evidence.
Downing Street dismissed those claims as “grotesque, bizarre and a blatant lie.”
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), based in the Netherlands, announced it would send a fact-finding team to the site of the attack outside Damascus. The team was due to arrive Saturday. It was not clear whether the presence of the investigators could affect the timing of any US military action.
At stake in Syria is the potential for confrontation, if not outright conflict, between the US and Russia, former Cold War foes whose relations have deteriorated in recent years over Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine, its interference in the 2016 US presidential election and its support for al-Assad.
Russian lawmakers have warned the US that Moscow would view an airstrike on Syria as a war crime and that it could trigger a direct military clash. Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon said any missiles fired at Syria would be shot down and the launching sites targeted — a stark warning.
Meanwhile, the world waits on Trump. “Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!” Trump posted on Twitter on Thursday.