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Trump warns of ‘big price’ for suspected poison gas attack in Syria

In an image taken from a video released by Syria Civil Defense, known as the White Helmets, a volunteer gives oxygen to a child at a hospital in Douma following a reported chemical attack on the rebel-held town on Sunday.
In an image taken from a video released by Syria Civil Defense, known as the White Helmets, a volunteer gives oxygen to a child at a hospital in Douma following a reported chemical attack on the rebel-held town on Sunday.
(AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump vowed Sunday there would be a “big price to pay” for a suspected poison gas attack that killed dozens of Syrian civilians, and he issued a rare public rebuke to Russian President Vladimir Putin for backing Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country’s vicious civil war.

Trump’s condemnation of the apparent chemical assault on the rebel-held Syrian town of Douma raised the prospect of U.S. military retaliation almost a year after he ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base following a similar poison gas attack — a move that won Trump widespread praise.

Trump’s homeland security advisor, Tom Bossert, said Sunday that he “wouldn’t take anything off the table” regarding a possible military response to the illicit use of chemical agents and what he called “horrible photos” of its victims, including young children.

Trump’s secretary of State and national security advisor both were forced out in recent weeks, so the issue is likely to be the top agenda item for John Bolton, an avowed hawk expected to take office Monday as national security advisor.

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Russia’s muscular military intervention in Syria more than two years ago helped turned the course of the civil war in Assad’s favor, and together with Iran, Moscow has emerged as a central power in determining Syria’s — and the region’s — postwar order.

“President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad,” Trump tweeted Sunday, in a highly unusual negative reference to the Russian leader by name. “Big price to pay.”

The White House later appeared to moderate Trump’s certainty about the Douma attack. After Trump spoke by phone with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi, a White House statement said they had discussed “possible chemical attacks near Damascus.”

In his own tweet, Vice President Mike Pence demanded a change in Assad’s “barbaric behavior,” but noted that responsibility for what he called a “likely chemical attack” had not yet been confirmed.

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In Douma, Syrian opposition activists and first responders described how entire families were found suffocated in their homes after the gas attack. Horrific photos of the tiny slumped bodies of dead or dying children were widely circulated on social media.

Assad’s government denied responsibility, as it has in the past, and Russia on Sunday called accounts of a poison gas attack “bogus.”

The prospect of U.S. military action comes days after Trump — to the dismay of some senior advisors and the surprise of Pentagon officials — indicated he was considering a quick pullout of several thousand U.S. troops from Syria, which is in the eighth year of a grinding multi-sided civil war.

The White House later said U.S. troops would stay to defeat the remaining pockets of Islamic State, but multiple reports said Trump made clear that he wants the Pentagon to withdraw forces by next fall and hand over long-term stabilization of the war-ravaged country to Arab allies.

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The Syria situation also underscores a paradox of Trump’s relationship with Putin. He has strenuously sought to maintain good personal relations with the Russian leader even as the administration has moved to punish oligarchs closely tied to the Kremlin, and as Washington and Moscow engaged in large-scale retaliatory diplomatic expulsions.

After British authorities had accused Moscow of using a lethal nerve gas against a former Russian double agent and his daughter in southern England last month, for example, Trump spoke to Putin by phone and invited him to the White House. No summit has been scheduled, but the White House said later that it’s not been ruled out.

Then, on Friday, the administration finally announced sanctions mandated by Congress last year on members of Russia’s ruling elite for Russian cyberattacks and meddling in foreign elections, including the 2016 presidential campaign. The group included 17 Russian government officials, a state-owned weapons trading company and seven of the country’s richest businessmen.

Several of those put on the blacklist had links to Trump’s campaign or to his associates who have come under scrutiny in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation. The group includes the wealthy son of a childhood friend of the Russian president and a billionaire who married his daughter.

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Some senior lawmakers said Trump’s latest warning on Syria, as articulated on Twitter, may commit him to taking some action — much as he did last year.

On April 7, 2017, Navy warships launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syria’s Shayrat air base for its role in a gas attack with sarin, a banned nerve agent, on the Syrian hamlet of Khan Sheikhoun. The president was spurred in part, the White House said, by images of stricken Syrian children.

Now, if Trump “doesn’t follow through and live up to that tweet, he’s going to look weak in the eyes of Russia and Iran,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.), said on ABC’s “This Week.” He called it a “defining moment.”

Sen. Susan Collins, (R-Maine), said Sunday’s warnings were inconsistent with his assertions last week that U.S. troops should leave Syria soon.

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“I think the president is going to have to reconsider his plan for an early withdrawal in light of what has happened,” Collins said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Even as he ramped up the prospect of an airstrike in Syria, the president, who has previously taken a confrontational line on trade with China, appeared to try to tamp down the risk of a damaging trade war with Beijing.

Trump said on Twitter that he expected China would “do the right thing,” citing his friendship with President Xi Jinping. He did not otherwise explain how he expected the conflict to be resolved.

Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, interviewed on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” said he did not expect a trade war with China. He said the objective was to reach a deal and that he did not foresee a clash having “a meaningful impact on our economy.”

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The prospect of a full-scale trade confrontation with Beijing has sent the stock market into a slump, and drawn criticism from economists who flatly dispute Trump’s earlier assertion that trade wars are “good, and easy to win.”

Trump’s trade advisor, Peter Navarro, insisted on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the administration was “moving forward in a measured way” on tariffs.

laura.king@latimes.com

@laurakingLAT

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