Amid escalating tensions over Syria, Trump weighs options

Donald Trump, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Amid escalating global tensions over Syria, President Donald Trump weighed his options for responding — possibly with military strikes — to the Syrian government’s suspected chemical weapons attack against civilians. Trump’s U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, said Friday the president had not yet made a final decision on how and whether to respond.

Trump was expected to consult further with his national security team. Earlier this week he had tweeted that U.S. 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 top leaders of Britain and France, who have indicated they want to punish Syria.

Haley told an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council 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 Friday that “the United States estimates that (President Bashar) Assad has used chemical weapons in the Syrian war at least 50 times.”

U.N. 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 Syria “represents the most serious threat.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said Syria’s use of chemical weapons should not be tolerated. And, he adds, although the United States has no hard proof, he believes the Syrian government is responsible for Saturday’s attack.

But Mattis also has noted the risk of military action and said the U.S. should continue its policy not to be involved directly in Syria’s civil war.

“Our strategy remains the same as a year ago,” he said. “It is to drive this to a U.N.-brokered peace but, at the same time, keep our foot on the neck of ISIS until we suffocate it,” referring to the Islamic State extremist group.

The U.S., France and Britain have been in extensive consultations about launching a military strike as early as the end of this week, U.S. officials have said. A joint military operation, possibly with France rather than the U.S. 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 Assad was responsible for Saturday’s attack. The Cabinet agreed on the need to “take action” to deter further chemical weapons use by Assad, but added that May would continue to consult with allies to coordinate an international response.

The Russian military claims the alleged attack was staged and directed by Britain. A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said Friday that Britain was “directly involved in the provocation,” but didn’t elaborate or provide evidence.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, 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 U.S. military action.

At the House hearing, Democrats grilled Mattis on the wisdom and legality of Trump ordering an attack on Syria without explicit authorization from Congress. Mattis argued it would be justified as an act of self-defense, with 2,000 U.S. ground troops in Syria; he insisted he could not talk about military plans because an attack “is not yet in the offing.”

Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said he sees no legal justification for a U.S. strike in Syria, absent explicit authorization by Congress. More broadly, he doubted the wisdom of bombing.

“Until we have a more long-term strategy, until we have some idea where we’re going in Syria and the Middle East, it seems unwise, to me, to start launching missiles,” said Smith, D-Wash. “We need to know where that’s going, what the purpose of it is before we take that act.”

At stake in Syria is the potential for confrontation, if not outright conflict, between the U.S. and Russia, former Cold War foes whose relations have deteriorated in recent years over Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine, its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and its support for Assad.

Russian lawmakers have warned the United States that Moscow would view an airstrike on Syria as a war crime and that it could trigger a direct U.S-Russian 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 of a potential major confrontation.

At the House hearing, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, disputed Trump’s legal authority to act without congressional authority and suggested a U.S. strike would lead to war with Russia.

“I’m not ready to speculate that that would happen,” Mattis said.

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