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Trump says Syria will pay ‘big price’ for new chemical attack

In an image released by a Syrian rescue group, a worker carried a child after an attack in rebel-held Douma.
In an image released by a Syrian rescue group, a worker carried a child after an attack in rebel-held Douma. (Syrian Civil Defense/AP)

WASHINGTON — President Trump promised Sunday that a “big price” will be paid for what he said was a chemical weapons attack that choked at least 49 Syrians to death, and the White House said it would not rule out a missile strike to retaliate against the government of President Bashar Assad.

In a tweet, Trump laid the blame for the suspected attack partly on President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the first time since his election that he has criticized the Russian leader by name on Twitter.

Putin’s forces have been fighting for years to keep the Assad government in power amid Syria’s brutal civil war.

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Trump also left no doubt he believed the assessment of aid groups that Assad’s military had used chemical weapons to inflict the carnage Saturday in Douma, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus. The attack left people dead in their homes from apparent suffocation and sent many others to clinics with burning eyes and breathing problems.

“Many dead, including women and children, in mindless chemical attack in Syria,” Trump wrote. “Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world.

“President Putin, Russia, and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad,’’ he added. “Big price to pay. Open area immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. Sick!”

Trump also took a jab at former president Obama, who declined to respond militarily to evidence that the Syrian government had gassed its own people in 2013. “If President Obama had crossed his stated red line in the sand, the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago!’’ Trump said.

The attack appeared to break the will of Douma’s rebels, who agreed Sunday to a deal with the government to hand the area over and be bused to another area outside government control in the country’s north.

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Thousands of fighters and tens of thousands of their relatives are expected to leave soon.

Western governments expressed alarm at the latest attack, with the British Foreign Office calling for an urgent investigation and saying that if the use of chemical weapons proved to be true, “it is further proof of Assad’s brutality.”

State news media in Syria denied that government forces had used chemical weapons and accused the Islamist rebel group that controls Douma, the Army of Islam, of fabricating the videos to solicit international support as defeat loomed.

The Russian Foreign and Defense Ministries also denied that chemical weapons had been used.

The Syrian government and its allies — the Russian military and militias backed by Iran — have surrounded and bombarded the area, killing more than 1,600 people and forcing tens of thousands to flee, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict from Britain through contacts in Syria.

Douma has been the last remaining town still controlled by rebels in the area, and the Syrian government vowed to retake it.

Over the weekend, the government began another offensive in the area. The intensity of the shelling and airstrikes caused many residents to seek safety in basements, which could have made them more vulnerable to poisonous gases.

On Saturday afternoon, 15 people, including women and children, reported breathing problems after an airstrike in their area, Mahmoud Aadam a spokesman for the Syrian Civil Defense, which rescues people after airstrikes, said via Facebook Live on Sunday.

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Then, after dark, a government helicopter dropped exploding barrels that dispersed an unknown chemical substance that affected many more people, Aadam said. The continued assaults made it hard for rescue workers to look for victims, he said, meaning that it was difficult to establish a comprehensive death toll.

On Sunday, rescue workers were “going into homes and finding people dead,” he said.

In a joint statement, the Syrian Civil Defense and the Syrian American Medical Society, which supports clinics in opposition areas of Syria, said that more than 500 people had gone to medical centers after the assault “with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent.”

Those symptoms included trouble breathing, foaming at the mouth, burning eyes, and the “emission of a chlorine-like odor.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which did not confirm the use of chemical agents, said that 56 people, including women and children, had been killed by fighting in the past 24 hours.

Thomas Bossert, Trump’s Homeland Security adviser, said he and the rest of the president’s national security team had conferred with the president about how to respond to the chemical attack. Asked specifically about the possibility of a missile strike, Bossert did not rule it out.

“I wouldn’t take anything off the table,” Bossert said on ABC’s “This Week.” “These are horrible photos; we’re looking into the attack at this point.”

That raised the prospect of a strike along the lines of one that the president ordered almost exactly a year ago after a sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun that killed more than 80 civilians. In that strike, the US military dropped 59 Tomahawk missiles on the Al Shayrat airfield.

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Trump may be considering such a strike even as he has expressed his desire in recent days to pull US troops out of Syria, where they are seeking to eliminate the last vestiges of the Islamic State.

White House officials said Trump would meet Monday at the White House with senior military leaders.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said Trump should make good on what the president appeared to be threatening on Twitter.

If the president “doesn’t follow through and live up to that tweet, he’s going to look weak in the eyes of Russia and Iran,” Graham said on “This Week.” “This is a defining moment.”

“You need to follow through with that tweet,” he added. “Show a resolve that Obama never did to get this right.”

About the time of the 2013 chemical attack in Syria, Trump had argued fiercely against US intervention in Syria. In more than a dozen messages on Twitter in 2013 and 2014, he said the nation’s civil war was “not our problem” and that American troops should “stay out.”

In a statement Saturday night, the State Department called the situation in Douma an “alleged chemical weapons attack” and said the reports about it were “horrifying and demand an immediate response by the international community.”

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The statement took Moscow to task, saying it had breached international obligations and calling into question its commitment to weapons nonproliferation.

“The Assad regime and its backers must be held accountable and any further attacks prevented immediately,” it said. “Russia, with its unwavering support for the regime, ultimately bears responsibility for these brutal attacks, targeting of countless civilians and the suffocation of Syria’s most vulnerable communities with chemical weapons.”

But while members of his administration have often been harshly critical of Putin, Trump has in general spoken warmly of his Russian counterpart.

US officials said the process was underway to confirm whether the Syrian government had used chemical weapons and, if so, what kind.

Since last April’s strike on the airfield, the Pentagon has updated lists of potential Syrian military and government targets should Trump order another strike.

A senior Navy officer said Sunday that warships capable of firing cruise missiles were in the Mediterranean on routine, long-scheduled deployments but had not received any orders to prepare to move closer to Syria or to prepare to carry out any strikes.