President Trump said he has changed his “attitude” toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and kept open the possibility of a major military strike in the region after viewing the images of civilians stricken and killed by poisonous chemical gas.
“It crossed a lot of lines for me,” Trump said outside the White House yesterday. “When you kill innocent children, innocent babies — babies, little babies — with a chemical gas that is so lethal … that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line.”
The Trump administration had suggested in recent months that in pursuit of an America First policy, the United States might ignore al-Assad, whose government has been in a civil war against rebels supported by the U.S.
But the suspected chemical attacks earlier this week, which have killed at least 75 people and injured hundreds, appeared to shake Trump to his core yesterday.
“I like to think of myself as a very flexible person,” said Trump. “That attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me. Big impact. That was a horrible, horrible thing … and I have that flexibility and it’s very, very possible and I will tell you it’s already happened that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”
Critics suggested the Trump administration’s prior stance bore some responsibility for the Syrian attack. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one of Trump’s 2016 GOP primary rivals, told a Florida radio station, “Look, it’s concerning that the secretary of state … said the future’s up to the people in Syria on what happens with Assad, in essence, almost nodding to the idea that Assad was going to get to stay in some capacity. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a few days later we see this.”
Trump — sticking to a campaign promise not to signal his intentions to an adversary — would not say what action the United States might take against Syria, which could range from sanctions to a military operation.
At the United Nations, Ambassador Nikki Haley held up photos of victims and vowed that if the U.N. won’t respond to the chemical attacks, the United States will.
“There are times at the United Nations when we are compelled to take collective action,” said Haley. “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.”
Escalated American involvement in Syria could put the United States on a collision course with Iran and Russia, who both back Assad.
Russia yesterday blamed the chemical deaths on Syrian air strikes hitting a weapons warehouse under control of the insurgents — something eyewitnesses and aid workers vehemently deny. Experts said that would more likely result in the destruction of weapons, not the release of gas.
Trump again blamed former President Obama for setting the stage for the crisis, including declaring his infamous “red line” ultimatum to Assad over chemical weapons in 2012, only to secure a deal with him after he crossed it.
“I think it set us back a long way not just in Syria, but around the world, because it was a blank threat,” Trump said.
Separately, Trump plans to host Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Florida Mar-a-Lago estate today.
Their summit will be complicated by news that North Korea launched a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan yesterday.
“The world is a mess,” lamented Trump. “Whether it’s the Middle East or North Korea, I inherited a mess. We’re going to fix it.”
Herald wire services contributed to this report.
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