Donald Trump, the US president, has warned Russia’s Vladimir Putin that there would be a “big price to pay” for a suspected Syrian chemical weapons attack that killed 70 people, including children.
White House warns Putin that no response is 'off the table' over Syrian gas atrocity, as pressure mounts on May !
In his harshest criticism of the Russian leader since taking office, Mr Trump said Mr Putin was partly “responsible” for the attack on rebels in Douma, a town in Eastern Ghouta. The US president also criticised Barack Obama’s failure to police a “red line” over chemical weapons, while a senior White House official said no form of response was “off the table”.
The comments raise the possibility of a US airstrike against Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator. Mr Trump approved a strike a year ago after a similar chemical attack.
The UN security council is expected to meet tomorrow after the UK, France, America and six other countries called for an emergency session. Theresa May was also under pressure to join any US military intervention against the Assad regime, though MPs are not expected to be recalled to Parliament.
Russia, Iran and Syria all denied chemical weapons had been used, with the Kremlin warning that any military response from the West would be “absolutely unacceptable”.
A residential area of Douma, one the last-remaining rebel-held areas in Syria, was struck by the suspected chemical weapons attack around 8.45pm on Saturday. Footage from the ground showed the dead bodies of children and adults foaming at the mouth with open eyes. Many had been in a basement when the attack hit.
'I wouldn't take anything off the table'
Mr Trump tweeted: “Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. "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. Big price to pay. “Open area immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!"
He also criticised his predecessor’s failure to launch air strikes after past chemical weapons use, tweeting: “If President Obama had crossed his stated Red Line In The Sand, the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago! Animal Assad would have been history!”
If President Obama had crossed his stated Red Line In The Sand, the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago! Animal Assad would have been history!
US media reported that Mr Trump will meet military leaders on Monday while Republican congressmen demanded that he follow through his tough rhetoric with action. Thomas Bossert, a White House homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, declined to rule out any form of response during an interview with ABC's This Week.
"I wouldn't take anything off the table. These are horrible photos. We're looking into the attack," Mr Bossert said.
The attack came almost exactly a year after deadly sarin gas was used on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, which prompted Mr Trump to approve dropping US Tomahawk missiles on a Syrian airbase. The Union of Medical Relief Organisations, a US-based charity that works with Syrian hospitals, said 70 had been confirmed dead but the toll was expected to rise.
If it reaches above 80, it would be the deadliest chemical attack since the 2013 sarin strike on Eastern Ghouta which left around 1,400 dead. It was unclear what chemical had been used in Saturday's attack.
Medics on the ground reported smelling a chlorine-like substance, but said the patients' symptoms and the large death toll pointed to a more noxious substance such as nerve agent sarin.
Mr Trump’s tweets come just days after he publicly called for US troops to be pulled out of Syria after a string of victories against Isil, the jihadist group. The US president reluctantly agreed to keep America’s 2,000 soldiers there for now but is still pushing for withdrawal within months rather than years.
'Military intervention may trigger the gravest consequences'
Mr Trump’s decision to single out Mr Putin for blame breaks with a reluctance to directly criticised the Russia leader seen throughout his presidency. The US president did not bring up the Salisbury poisoningor claims of ballot-stuffing at the Russian election when the pair talked last month.
Mr Trump has largely not echoed the harsh criticism of Mr Putin by some of in his administration, even while approving a string of sanctions against Kremlin allies. Earlier today Russia, which along with Iran is supporting the Assad regime, denied chemical weapons had been used in the attack and warned against a military response.
The Russian foreign ministry said: "The goal of these false speculations, which are not substantiated by any facts, is to cover up terrorists and irreconcilable radical opposition, which opposes political settlement, and to simultaneously try to justify potential external military strikes.
It is necessary to once again caution that military intervention under false and fabricated pretexts in Syria, where the Russian servicemen stay at the request of the legitimate government, is absolutely unacceptable and may trigger the gravest consequences."
Iran's foreign ministry called claims of chemical weapons use “an excuse” for a military attack, Syria's foreign ministry said such allegations were an “unconvincing broken record".
How has the UK reacted?
Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, said that Britain is in "close touch" with the US and other allies, adding that those behind the attack must be "held to account".
Mr Johnson said in the Commons earlier this year that if there is "incontrovertible evidence" of further chemical weapons use by the Assad regime, "I would certainly hope very much that the west will not stand idly by".
However ministers are concerned that they may be forced to hold a vote in the Commons to authorise action against the Assad regime, with no guarantee that of winning it. The Government fears that Jeremy Corbyn could oppose military action against the Assad regime, which would make the "electoral maths" challenging.
David Cameron lost an historic vote for action in Syria in 2013, which is widely seen to have emboldened the Assad regime. The Government won a vote in the Commons for military action against Isil in Syria in 2015, but that does not extend to the Assad regime.
Parliament is also in recess until next week, by which time it may be too late to join any military action. Johnny Mercer, a Tory MP, says in an article for the Daily Telegraph today that requiring a vote in the Commons to authorise military action is "pathetic".