Just days after saying that removing Bashar Assad was not a priority, top U.S. officials took a much stronger line on the Syrian dictator Wednesday in the wake of the horrific chemical attack that killed more than 80 people, including 30 children. President Donald Trump said the massacre went "beyond a red line" and had changed his opinion of Assad, while U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley warned Washington might take unilateral action over the issue.
But beyond the heightened rhetoric, the White House offered no specific details as to how Trump planned to respond to increasingly flagrant crimes by Assad, who has been widely condemned for Tuesday's chemical attack on a town in rebel-held Idlib.
The U.S., Britain, and Turkey have blamed Syrian government forces for the attack, but Assad and close ally Russia have said it was caused by a government airstrike on a rebel chemical weapons facility, with Syria saying Thursday the strike targeted an arms depot of Al Nusra Front, a powerful al-Qaida affiliate in the area. That account was widely rejected in the international community, with a chemical weapons expert saying such a strike would simply destroy stockpiled nerve agents, and one U.S. official telling Reuters that the explanation did not "comport with reality."
"These latest statements contradict everything the new administration has said about Syria so far."
Wednesday's multi-pronged rhetorical assault on Assad represented a stark shift in the U.S. position from statements less than a week earlier that Washington was no longer seeking the Syrian president's removal as a priority in the conflict.
Speaking at a White House press conference, Trump said the attack had crossed "many, many lines, beyond a red line" for him, and could not be tolerated.
"I will tell you, what happened yesterday is unacceptable to me," Trump said. "And I will tell you, it's already happened that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much... You're now talking about a whole different level."
He acknowledged that he now had "responsibility" for responding to the attack, which he called "an affront to humanity," but was vague when asked if he would change U.S. policy towards Syria over the atrocity. "You will see," he said.
Earlier Wednesday at an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley held up photographs of children killed in the suspected sarin attack as she warned the U.S. could be prepared to act unilaterally in response to Assad's abuses if the international community failed to stand up.
"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," she said.
Russia has consistently used its veto power in the Security Council to block U.N. action against Assad, and it did so again Wednesday when it blocked a U.S.-led draft resolution condemning the attack. While Trump had held back from criticizing Moscow in his remarks, Haley lambasted Russia for deflecting Assad's abuses.
"Time and time again, Russia uses the same false narrative to deflect attention from their allies in Damascus," she said. "How many more children have to die before Russia cares?"
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Russia Wednesday to "really think carefully" about its support for Assad, while Vice President Mike Pence hammered home the tough talk, telling Fox News that "all options are on the table."
Russia challenged the U.S. line, however, making its position on the issue clear Thursday.
"Russia's approach to Assad is clear. He is the legal president of an independent state. What is the U.S. approach?" Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova remarked to CNN. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the U.S. data on the attack was not objective and that it was premature of the U.S. to blame Syria.
The chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun confronts Trump with the same dilemma that former President Barack Obama faced after a previous alleged sarin attack against rebels in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in 2013, one of the most infamous episodes in the six-year conflict.
Direct action against Assad would ramp up the confrontation with Moscow and drag the U.S. deeper into a war where its priority is to destroy ISIS. But doing nothing after the "red line" of an illegal chemical weapons attack had been crossed would be read as a de facto signal to Assad that he was free to continue committing atrocities with impunity.
Trump has repeatedly criticized his predecessor for "weakness" in failing to follow through with military action against Assad in 2013, and settling instead for a deal to remove his chemical arsenal, which recent events suggest may have been ineffective. He told reporters Wednesday that Obama's failure to follow through after the "red line" warning over Ghouta had "set us back a long ways, not only in Syria but in many other parts of the world."
Despite the harsher rhetoric, strategic allies Britain and France, which also supported the failed draft resolution against Syria in the U.N., have downplayed talk of any military action in response to the chemical attack. The French ambassador to the U.N., Francois Delattre, said action by the Security Council was "by far the best option, while British Prime Minister Theresa May ruled out military action and said her government would call for the Organization for the Prohibition of the Chemical Weapons to investigate.
Syrian columnist and researcher Haid Haid said that how the Trump administration would respond to the attack remained anyone's guess.
"These latest statements contradict everything the new administration has said about Syria so far," he said. "What we heard Wednesday is that the U.S. is exploring options, and all options are on the table. But which option they will choose is still to be seen."
According to U.K.-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 86 people were killed in Tuesday's attack. The World Health Organization and medical charity MSF have said that some victims had symptoms consistent with exposure to nerve agents. Thirty-two of the victims were taken to Turkey; the results of their autopsies will be sent to The Hague for additional examination, the Turkish government said Thursday.