President Trump said at a cabinet meeting on Monday that he would make a decision in the next 24 to 48 hours about whether to
retaliate militarily to the chemical weapons attack in Syria. Published on April 9, 2018, credit image by Tom Brenner/The New
President Trump on Monday denounced the suspected chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of people in Syria over the weekend as a "barbaric act," and said he will make a decision in the next 24 to 48 hours about whether to retaliate militarily as he did to a similar assault last year.
"We're talking about humanity and it can't be allowed to happen," Mr. Trump told reporters at the start of a cabinet meeting at which he suggested that a response would be forthcoming soon. "We'll be making that decision very quickly, probably by the end of today. We cannot allow atrocities like that."
Calling the attack "heinous" and "atrocious," the president suggested that Syria's patrons in Russia and Iran may also be responsible, and seemed to imply that he would take action of some sort to punish them as well.
"If it's Russia, if it's Syria, if it's Iran, if it's all of them together, we'll figure it out and we'll know the answers quite soon," he said. "So we're looking at that very strongly and very seriously."
Asked if President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, with whom Mr. Trump has sought to forge a friendship, bears responsibility, the president said: "He may and if he does it's going to be very tough, very tough. Everybody's going to pay a price. He will, everybody will."
The White House was feeling pressure from France to act, lest President Emmanuel Macron do so first, according to a Trump administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive international interactions. Mr. Macron, who spoke on Sunday with Mr. Trump by telephone, has repeatedly declared that the use of chemical weapons by Syria's government would be a red line and pledged to strike weapons sites connected to such attacks.
After the phone call, the White House issued a statement saying that "both leaders strongly condemned" the attack and agreed that the government of President Bashar al-Assad "must be held accountable." They vowed to "coordinate a strong, joint response."
The challenge for Mr. Trump's Middle East policy came on a day when he was already facing a transition in his foreign policy team as his new national security adviser, John R. Bolton, arrived for his first day on the job and the president was scheduled to host the nation's senior military leaders for dinner at the White House. Mr. Bolton sat behind Mr. Trump during the cabinet meeting but made no comment while reporters were in the room.
National security and military officers were meeting on Monday to discuss options, but defense officials would not say what specific military actions are on the table. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, speaking with reporters on Monday, sounded a muted tone.
"The first thing we have to look at is why are chemical weapons still being used at all when Russia was the framework guarantor of removing all the chemical weapons," Mr. Mattis said as he hosted the visiting emir of Qatar at the Pentagon. "And so, working with our allies and partners from NATO to Qatar and elsewhere, we are going to address this issue."
Asked if he would rule out airstrikes against Mr. Assad's government, Mr. Mattis said, "I don't rule out anything right now."
Two Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyers are located in the Sixth Fleet's area of operations in the Mediterranean Sea and would be able to get within striking range within hours to days. When Mr. Trump ordered the retaliatory strike against Syria at almost the exact same time last year, it was carried out by two destroyers firing 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Al Shayrat airfield, the suspected source of the chemical attack, hitting fighter jets, hardened aircraft shelters, radar equipment, ammunition bunkers and sites for storing fuel and defense systems.
The already tense situation in the Middle East was further inflamed early Monday morning by an attack reportedly conducted by Israel on a Syrian air base used by Iranian-backed militias. The strike killed about 14 people, according to a conflict monitoring group, and Russia and Syria said it was carried out by Israel, whose government declined to confirm its involvement.
The chemical attack in the suburb of Douma over the weekend killed at least 49 people and raised the temperature of an already simmering relationship between the United States and Russia. Mr. Putin has troops in Syria propping up Mr. Assad's government. Russia has rejected the conclusion that Syria's military was behind the chemical attack, asserting that it was staged by militants to falsely blame the government and justify an American strike against Mr. Assad's regime.
Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that despite Mr. Trump's comments last week that he wanted to withdraw American troops from Syria, the United States was actually seeking to entrench itself in the country. "The U.S. is taking steps not to leave as President Trump said, and leave Syria for others, but to establish a foothold there for a very long time," Mr. Lavrov said.
Mr. Trump dismissed the Russian and Syrian denials. "They're saying they're not" responsible, "but to me there's not much of a doubt," he told reporters. Mr. Trump said that Syria was not allowing any independent inspection of the attack site. "If they're innocent why aren't they allowing people to go in and prove" it, he asked.
France was not the only European ally to express outrage over the attack. "If confirmed, this is yet another example of the Assad regime's brutality and brazen disregard for its own people and for its legal obligations not to use these weapons," Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain said during a visit to Denmark. "If they are found to be responsible, the regime and its backers — including Russia — must be held to account."
The United Nations Security Council was scheduled to hold an emergency meeting on Monday to discuss the Syria attack but Russia, as a permanent member, holds a veto that would presumably be used to block any action by the world body.
The Syria attack presented Mr. Bolton with his first crisis even as he was moving into his West Wing office. Known as a national security hawk, Mr. Bolton has in the past urged military action against governments in Iran and North Korea to counter their nuclear weapons programs, and he remains a staunch defender of the 2003 invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.
But like Mr. Trump, he resisted a strike against Syria when President Barack Obama was in office and facing a similar choice following a chemical weapons attack against civilians in 2013. In that instance, Mr. Obama sought support from Congress, but ultimately backed off a strike after reaching an agreement with Russia to remove Syria's chemical weapons arsenal.
"If I were a member of Congress, I would vote against an authorization to use force here," Mr. Bolton said at the time. "I don't think it's in America's interest. I don't think we should in effect take sides in the Syrian conflict."
Mr. Bolton took a different position when Mr. Trump ordered action last year. "I think the Trump decision to strike as they did was the correct decision," he said then. "I think the limited, very precise nature of what the president did and the basis on which he did it was important." He added: "I think there is an American national interest in preventing people from violating treaties that try to restrict the use or the spread of weapons of mass destruction."
Helene Cooper and Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.