The Pentagon is to present options to Donald Trump for a military strike on Bashar al-Assad after outrage over the latest chemical weapons attack in Idlib appears to have prompted a change of heart about the Syrian president.
The US secretary of defense, James Mattis, and national security adviser HR McMaster are to huddle with Trump late on Thursday at Mar-a-Lago, where Trump is beginning a summit with Chinese president Xi Jinping.
The change in tone was underlined by secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who reversed his previous position and said: “Assad’s role in the future is uncertain, clearly. And with the acts he has taken it would seem there is no role for him to govern the Syrian people.” As recently as last week, Tillerson had said that Assad’s future would “be decided by the Syrian people”.
Senior US military commanders have long sounded warnings over involving the US in Syria’s grueling, multifaceted civil war, but the Pentagon is now said to be considering a range of options for standoff missile strikes against Assad regime targets.
Discussions are likely to center on whether the strikes would be punitive and limited – to destroy specific aircraft, airstrips or chemical weapons infrastructure – or the beginning of a broader campaign to oust a ruler whom only days ago the Trump administration was prepared to leave in power.
It is further unclear what, if any, US planning exists for a post-Assad Syria should the US seek to oust Assad and inherit a fractious, violent country.
Tillerson alluded to US intelligence, which Trump has in the past publicly distrusted, leaving no doubt of Assad’s culpability for a sarin gas attack in Idlib that killed more than 80 people, including children.
Tillerson said it was very important for the Russian government “to consider carefully their continued support for the Assad regime”, which in 2015 led to Russia’s first military operation far from its borders in a generation.
The US secretary of state, who had close ties to the Putin government during his career as an ExxonMobil oil executive, is scheduled to travel to Moscow next week.
Asked about possible military action, he said: “We are considering an appropriate response for this chemical weapons attack, which violates all previous UN resolutions and violates international norms and long-held agreements between parties including the Syrian regime, the Russian government and all other members of the UNSC.”
He added: “It’s a serious matter. It requires a serious response.”
The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was quoted as welcoming US military action and would be ready to provide assistance. Turkish troops have been in northern Syria since last August, fighting Isis and Kurdish militias.
If a [US] action will really be put forward, we are ready to do our part,” the Daily Hurriyet newspaper quoted Erdoğan as saying, citing an interview with Turkey’s Kanal 7 broadcaster.
Any US military action against Assad’s forces is complicated by the sustained presence of Russian personnel and aircraft in areas controlled by the regime. Trump last year warned that attacking Assad, who has called the US president a “natural ally”, risked starting “World War III” with Russia.
Without elaboration, Tillerson said that “steps are under way” to rally an international diplomatic effort to convince Assad to relinquish power – reminiscent of the approach Barack Obama’s administration labored unsuccessfully for years to effect.
At the UN, the US, Britain and France planned to force a security council vote on Thursday evening on a resolution they have drafted condemning the attack. While it does not directly apportion blame, the resolution requires the Syrian military to hand over to UN investigators flight logs for its pilots from 4 April, the day of the attack, as well as the names of helicopter squadron commanders, and provide access to air bases suspected of being the launchpad for the chemical attacks. On Wednesday, Russia signalled it would veto the resolution.
Obama in late summer of 2013 threatened military strikes on Assad’s first chemical weapons attack, only to fail to win congressional support and for Russia to unexpectedly broker an 11th-hour deal to spirit away chemical weapons stockpiles. At the time, Obama’s potential actions were considered dubious under law, as Syria had neither attacked the US nor had the UN authorized military intervention.
Trump is now in a similar position, albeit with a more compliant Congress, said legal scholars.
“Under international law, he has zero right to attack Assad,” said Mary Ellen O’Connell, an international law scholar at the University of Notre Dame.
“It would be a reprisal attack. You won’t find any international law specialists who will find a legal right to carry out a reprisal.”
On Air Force One en route to his Mar-a-Lago estate, Trump was vague about what military actions he would authorize against Assad.
“I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity, and he’s there, and I guess he’s running things, so I guess something should happen,” Trump said.