U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday that "something should happen" with President Bashar al-Assad after a deadly poison gas attack in Syria, as the Pentagon and the White House launched detailed discussions on military options.
While Trump stopped short of calling on Assad to leave office, the comments were his strongest suggestion yet that the United States may be edging toward a stronger stance against Assad, an ally of Iran and Russia, whose country has been torn apart by six years of civil war.
"I think what Assad did is terrible," Trump told reporters traveling with him on Air Force One en route to Florida.
"I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity and he’s there, and I guess he’s running things, so something should happen," Trump said.
The poison gas attack on Tuesday in the rebel-held Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun killed at least 70 people, many of them children, and presented Trump with his biggest foreign policy crisis since he took office in January.
Washington has blamed the attack on the Syrian government, putting it at odds with Russia, which has air and ground forces in Syria.
Trump has until now focused his Syria policy almost exclusively on defeating Islamic State militants in northern Syria, where U.S. special forces are working with Arab and Kurdish armed groups.
Only last week, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said the U.S. diplomatic policy on Syria for now was no longer focused on making Assad leave power.
The gas attack in Idlib province outraged the world. Trump said on Wednesday it had caused him to think again about Assad.
A U.S. official said options being discussed by the Pentagon and White House after the gas attack could include grounding aircraft used by Assad's forces, the official added.
Such options would also include the use of cruise missiles, allowing the United States to strike targets without putting piloted aircraft in the skies above Syria.
Striking Assad could put the United States on a collision course with Russia, which intervened on the Syrian president's side in 2015, turning the tide of the conflict against mostly Sunni Muslim rebel groups in his favor.
The U.S. official did not comment on how likely military action might be or suggest which, if any, options might be recommended by the Pentagon.
The official added that U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster had already been in talks on the matter.
Mattis will presumably discuss the options when he meets with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida, the official said. Mattis is due in Florida later on Thursday as part of a scheduled trip.
U.S. intelligence agencies suspect that Assad kept some of the chemical weapons or components that he agreed to surrender under a U.S.-Russian deal that followed a chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus in 2013, a U.S. intelligence official said on Thursday.
"We have never taken the Assad regime at its word that it declared its entire chemical weapons stockpile," the official said.
Turkey would welcome U.S. military action in Syria following the gas attack and would be ready to assist if needed, President Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying. Ankara has been a steadfast opponent of Assad and repeatedly called for his ouster.
French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday a U.N.-authorized international military force should intervene in Syria if it is proven that Assad's government used chemical weapons.
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