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Tuesday 11 December 2018

US, France and UK 'discuss poison attack response' in Syria

Children are treated after and alleged chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Douma. Photo: Reuters
Children are treated after and alleged chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Douma. Photo: Reuters
Independent.ie Newsdesk

Independent.ie Newsdesk

Trump administration officials have consulted with global allies on a possible joint military response to Syria's alleged poison gas attack, as President Donald Trump cancelled a foreign trip in order to manage a crisis that is testing his vow to stand up to Syrian president Bashar Assad.

Mr Trump spoke with other world leaders, and other US officials said the US, France and Britain were in extensive consultations about launching a military strike as early as the end of this week.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.

None of the three countries' leaders had made a firm decision, according to the officials.

A joint military operation, possibly with France rather than the US in the lead, could send a message of international unity about enforcing the prohibitions on chemical weapons and counter Syria's political and military support from Russia and Iran.

President Emmanuel Macron said France, the US and Britain will decide how to respond in the coming days.

He called for a "strong and joint response" to the attack in the Syrian town of Douma on Saturday, which Syrian activists and rescuers say killed 40 people. The Syrian government denies responsibility.

The French president does not need parliamentary permission to launch a military operation. France is already involved in the US-led coalition created in 2014 to fight the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.

Multiple IS attacks have targeted French soil, including one last month.

Mr Trump suggested on Monday he had little doubt that Syrian government forces were to blame for what he said was a chemical attack, but neither he nor other administration officials have produced hard evidence.

Officials suggested such evidence was lacking, or at least not yet at hand. This is in contrast to an incident one year ago in which US intelligence agencies had video and other evidence of certain aspects of the actual attack, which involved the use of Sarin gas. Mr Trump responded by launching Navy cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield.

One official said the US, France and Britain were considering military options that would be more extensive than the punitive, one-day strike last April.

That strike did not appear to have had the desired effect of deterring Assad from further use of chemical agents. So the three countries are discussing a range of options, including preventing Assad from conducting future attacks by striking military capabilities involved in carrying out such attack, the official said.

Asked whether France would take military action, Mr Macron said his country will continue discussing technical and strategic information with US and British allies and "in the coming days we will announce our decision".

He said any action would "target chemical weapons" stocks. Under a 2013 agreement for which Russia was a guarantor, Syria was to have eliminated all its chemical weapons, but it has used chlorine and perhaps other chemicals since then.

Mr Trump spoke by phone with Prime Minister Theresa May. A British government statement said the two agreed the attack in Syria was "utterly reprehensible" and that the international community must respond "to uphold the worldwide prohibition on the use of chemical weapons".

Mr Trump met at the White House with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who told reporters that he and Mr Trump "see eye to eye" on the Syria problem.

"We cannot tolerate with a war criminal," the emir said, adding, "This matter should end immediately." Qatar hosts the United States' main air operations centre for the Middle East, which would coordinate any American air attack in Syria.

A watchdog agency, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, announced that it will send "shortly" a fact-finding mission to Douma, after receiving a request from the Syrian government and its Russian backers to investigate the allegations. It was not immediately clear whether that visit would delay or avert U.S. or allied military action.

The Russian military, which has troops in Syria, said on Monday that its officers had visited the site of the alleged attack and found no evidence to back up reports of poison gas being used.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Mr Trump will not attend the 8th Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru, or travel to Bogota, Colombia, as planned. She said he will stay home to "oversee the American response to Syria and to monitor developments around the world".

Press Association

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