Trump leaves door open to new Syria policy after attack

Dozens of people, including at least ten children, have been killed and more than 200 injured in a suspected chemical attack in northern Syria, multiple activist groups claim.

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump left the door open to new action in Syria in his first on-camera comments in response to a deadly suspected chemical attack in the Middle East.

“You will see,” Trump said when asked if he would take new action.

Trump made the comments as he welcomed Jordan’s King Abdullah to the Oval Office.

“These are very troubled times in the Middle East, and we see what happened just recently yesterday in Syria — horrible. Horrible, horrible thing. Unspeakable,” Trump said, later calling it a “terrible affront to humanity.”

World leaders expressed shock and outrage Tuesday at reports of the suspected targeted attack in northwestern Syria that killed scores of civilians, with one UK official suggesting the incident amounted to a war crime.

The death toll from the suspected gas attack Tuesday in Syria’s Idlib province has reached 70, according to the Aleppo Media Center. The activist group said 45 bodies have been identified so far.

Russian claims that a regime airstrike on a “terrorist” ammunition depot caused the deaths have been rejected, as victims described the aftermath of chemical bombs dropped from planes.

International condemnation mounted on Wednesday over what appeared to be a targeted chemical attack on a rebel-held town in Idlib province, one of the deadliest since the Syrian war began six years ago.

The White House and the UK blamed the regime of President Bashar al-Assad for the outrage, which caused the deaths of at least 10 children, some asleep in their beds when the attack struck at dawn. At the United Nations, western powers lambasted Russia for standing by the Assad regime.

The World Health Organization said victims bore the signs of exposure to nerve agents, and Amnesty International said evidence pointed to an “air-launched chemical attack.” International agencies were working to establish the provenance of the agents used in the strike.

Russia claimed the deaths were caused by gas released when a regime airstrike hit a chemical weapons factory on the ground. But victims being treated in a hospital on the Turkish side of the border told a CNN team they saw chemical bombs being dropped from planes.

Key developments

Dozens of victims have been taken to Turkey for treatment. The attack coincided with a two-day meeting in Brussels on Syria’s future. UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson calls attack a ‘barbaric act.’ Medical experts and US say attack likely result of a nerve agent, like sarin gas. UN Security Council holds emergency meeting.

The Russian defense ministry claimed on its Facebook page that a Syrian airstrike hit “workshops, which produced chemical warfare munitions” in the eastern outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun.

It said that “terrorists” had been transporting the chemical munitions from its largest arsenal to Iraq.

But a chemical weapons expert, Col. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, told BBC Radio 4 that all signs showed the chemical used was sarin gas and that Russia’s versions of events was “completely unsustainable.”

“I think this is pretty fanciful and no doubt the Russians trying to protect their allies. Axiomatically, if you blow up sarin, you destroy it,” he said.

Hours after the attack, several people were injured when an airstrike hit near a hospital in the same town, where victims from the earlier attack were being treated, the Aleppo Media Center activist group reported.

The Syrian Civil Defense rescue group, known as the White Helmets, said the hospital was knocked out of service.

Victim: ‘I don’t know if my family is dead or alive’

Around 25 victims of the attack were being treated Wednesday at the Reyhanli Hospital in southern Turkey near the Syrian border. Several said that they saw a plane drop chemical bombs.

Mazin Yusif, a 13-year-old-boy, broke down in tears as he spoke of what happened.

“At six thirty in the morning, the plane struck. I ran up on our roof and saw that the strike was in front of my grandfather’s house,” he told CNN at the hospital.

He said he ran toward the house and found his grandfather slumped over. He ran outside to call for help. “I got dizzy and then fainted in front of my grandfather’s garage. I next found myself here in this hospital, naked in a bed.”

The boy’s grandmother, 55-year-old Aisha al-Tilawi, said she saw blue and yellow after the plane dropped the chemical-laden bomb.

“We started choking, felt dizzy, then fainted. Mazin was trying to wake up his grandfather. Three of my family died,” she said, lying in bed with an oxygen mask on her face.

Another victim, 31-year-old Ahmed Abdel Rahim, stared vacantly from his hospital bed as he explained he was hit with a poisonous substance carried by three rockets.

“I was in my house. I had difficulty breathing, but I feel better now. But I did throw up after getting to the hospital. I don’t know if my family is dead or alive. I don’t know anything,” he said.

Worldwide condemnation

The World Health Organization said some victims showed symptoms consistent with exposure to a category of chemicals that includes nerve agents. That conclusion was supported by Amnesty International, which said victims were “very likely” to have been exposed to a compound such as sarin.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said it was gathering evidence about the attack. CNN saw a mobile laboratory provided by Turkish authorities at the Syrian border.

Speaking at a high-level meeting in Brussels on the future of Syria, the UK’s Johnson pointed the finger firmly at the Syrian regime.

“All the evidence I have seen suggests that it was the Assad regime who did it, in full knowledge they were using illegal weapons in a barbaric attack on their own people,” Johnson said.

Assad’s military has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons and consistently blames “terrorist” groups when chemical attacks are reported.

But many of these are delivered through airstrikes, and no rebel or terrorist group in Syria is believed to have the capacity to carry out aerial bombardments.

A UN investigation in August last year found that chemical weapons had been used in Syria, both by the national air force and ISIS militants. It found two instances where regime forces had used chlorine as a chemical weapon, and one where ISIS had used mustard gas between 2014 and 2015.

The Syrian Coalition, an umbrella opposition group, compared the suspected chemical attack with one in Eastern Ghouta in 2013 “that the international community allowed to pass without accountability or punishment.”

A UN report found that the nerve agent sarin gas had been used to kill civilians in that attack, in which activists say around 1,400 people were killed.

UN emergency meeting

At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council in New York, US ambassador and council president, Nikki Haley, held up photographs of children foaming at the mouth as evidence of the attack.

“If Russia has the influence in Syria that it claims to have, we need to see them use it. We need to see them put an end to these horrific acts. How many more children have to die before Russia cares?”

Haley hinted that the US was open to using military action in response. “When the UN 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,” Haley said, adding that if the UN doesn’t take action, “we may.”

Russia, Syria’s most powerful ally, made clear it would not support a resolution put forward by the US, UK and France, which condemned the attack and required Syria to provide flight logs for Tuesday, the day of the attack.

Russia has used its veto power as a permanent member of the Security Council at least seven times on Syrian resolutions.

Syria’s Deputy UN Ambassador Mounzer Mounzer flatly denied the reports, blaming “terrorist groups” for the dozens of deaths.

“Syria also reaffirms that the Syrian Arab Army does not have any form or type of chemical weapons. We have never used them and we will never use them,” he said.