As President Trump weighed his response to a suspected poison gas attack in Syria, the country’s government and its Russian and Iranian allies accused Israel of carrying out a predawn missile strike Monday on a Syrian air base, reportedly killing 14 people, including several Iranians.
The timing of the attack on the T4 air base in Syria’s central Homs province, hours after Trump warned there would be a “big price to pay” for Saturday’s alleged chemical weapons strike on a rebel-held enclave outside Damascus, revived fears of a potentially dangerous escalation between world powers involved in the country’s multi-sided civil war.
Just last week, Trump said he wants to withdraw about 2,000 American troops from Syria as soon as possible, alarming regional allies and some senior advisors who argue that a U.S. presence is still needed to prevent a resurgence by Islamic State militants and to counter expanding Russian and Iranian influence in the country.
Trump said Monday that he would make a “major decision” over the following 24 to 48 hours on a response to the “barbaric” attack Saturday, which opposition activists and first responders said killed nearly 50 people, including children.
“It was an atrocious attack. It was horrible,” the president told reporters ahead of his Cabinet meeting at the White House. “This is about humanity … and it can’t be allowed to happen.”
Trump indicated that his administration was still determining whether Syria, Russia, Iran or all three were to blame. Syria and Russia maintain that accusations of chemical weapons use are a hoax intended to provoke an international response against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Trump was set to meet with his senior military advisors in the evening to discuss his options. When asked by reporters if he would rule out airstrikes against Assad’s forces, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis said, “I don’t rule out anything right now.”
Almost a year ago, Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base for its role in an attack with sarin gas, a banned nerve agent, on the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun. But Syrian government forces are believed to have used chemical weapons — typically chlorine gas — on numerous other occasions without consequence, according to U.N. officials.
Analysts questioned whether another U.S. military strike would be an effective deterrent.
“I think the strike last year hasn’t really changed the calculus of anyone,” said Tobias Schneider, a research fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute, a Berlin think tank. “I think it was about making ourselves feel better about what had happened…. It didn’t threaten the Assad regime’s survival, which is really the only thing I think can compel a policy change in Damascus.”
The United States and Russia exchanged bitter recriminations Monday at an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council to debate a U.S.-drafted proposal to create an independent panel to investigate poison gas use in Syria.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., squarely blamed Russia for the weekend attack in Duma, the last rebel-held town in Syria’s eastern Ghouta region. “Russian hands,” she said, “are all covered in blood.”
Haley scolded Russia for repeatedly refusing to punish Syria. Russia has vetoed five Security Council resolutions that singled out Assad for condemnation.
“The day we prayed would never come has come again,” Haley told the council. “Only a monster does this.”
She described photographs of victims — suffocated babies and toddlers in their diapers, lying next to their dead parents, skin bluish, white foam bubbling from their mouths. Unlike a year ago, Haley did not display the photographs, but her descriptions were graphic.
The Russian ambassador to the U.N., Vassily Nebenzia, gave an impassioned and colorful description of the “boorish” behavior of the U.S. and countries that follow it “blindly,” threatening Moscow with sanctions, “blackmail” and antagonisms that “go beyond the Cold War.”
Nebenzia said the alleged poison gas attack in Duma was staged by anti-Assad “terrorists,” and that reports on the assault and photographs of the victims were “fake news.” He said Russian military experts visited the site and found no evidence of such an attack.
“There are no witnesses at all to a chemical attack!” Nebenzia said. “There are no traces! No patients at hospitals!”
Syria’s ambassador to the U.N., Bashar Jaafari, was also allowed to speak. He condemned both U.S. and Israeli “aggression.” “And,” he added, “what about the United States? What is the U.S. spending its money on? Milk for children? Or weapons for armed groups?”
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency initially suggested that the United States was to blame for Monday’s missile strike on the air base in Homs but later pointed the finger at Israel, after the Pentagon said it was not involved.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said two Israeli F-15 warplanes targeted the T4 base from Lebanese airspace. Syria’s air defenses shot down five of the eight guided missiles fired by the aircraft, according to a statement cited by Russian news agencies.
Residents in and around the Lebanese coastal city of Jounieh said they were jolted awake Monday by the sound of low-flying jets heading toward Syria. The country’s military later issued a statement saying Israeli planes had flown in from over the Mediterranean, breaching Lebanese airspace about 3:25 a.m. over Jounieh and streaking more than 30 miles east to the border city of Baalbek, before doubling back and leaving approximately 10 minutes later.
An Israeli army spokesman declined to comment on the accusations. Israel routinely refuses to discuss its military actions in Syria. But it is believed to have carried out scores of strikes in the country, many of them directed at suspected weapons shipments destined for the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which has been fighting alongside Syrian government forces.
Israel has grown increasingly alarmed about the presence of Iranian military advisors and allied militias in southern Syria, near the Israeli-controlled portion of the Golan Heights. In February, Israeli warplanes struck the same Syrian air base after an Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace. One of the Israeli planes used in that attack was shot down, Israeli officials confirmed at the time.
Michael Horowitz, a senior analyst focusing on Syria and Israel for the Bahrain-based Le Beck International, said Israeli officials are worried that there is no real U.S. commitment to rolling back Iranian influence in Syria. “They are very concerned by the gap between Trump’s rhetoric and his policy,” Horowitz said.
He suggested that Israel might have been taking advantage of a rare confluence of circumstances to strike Monday “as the United States and Europe ponder their response to the chemical attack, reducing the chances of Iran risking a major retaliation against Israel.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition war monitor based in Britain, said at least 14 people were killed in the attack on the T4 base, including three Syrian officers. Five Iranian troops or members of Iran-supported militias also died in the strike, the observatory’s head, Rami Abdul Rahman, said by phone.
Iran’s semiofficial Fars News Agency identified four of the Iranians, including a colonel in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Bahram Qassemi, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, decried the “aggression of Israel,” which he said violated Syria’s territorial integrity and complicated the crisis in that country. Brig. Gen. Farzad Esmaili, commander of Iranian air defenses, warned that any foreign warplanes that trespassed into Iranian skies would face “the toughest reaction.”
As world leaders faced off at the United Nations, Syrian rebels began evacuating the suburb where the suspected poison gas attack took place after agreeing to hand over control to the government following weeks of deadly bombardments.
The capitulation of the Army of Islam, the faction that controlled Duma, marked another significant victory for Assad in his quest to restore authority over all parts of the country that have fallen from government control. The eastern suburbs of the capital were among the first to join the uprising against Assad’s government in 2011.
Syrian television broadcast images of large buses, many emblazoned with the names of tour companies, waiting on the outskirts of Duma to evacuate hundreds of rebel fighters and their relatives to Jarabulus, a town in the north of Syria under the control of Turkish troops and allied rebel groups.
A state news reporter said 25 buses had left so far and others were being loaded up.
It was a bitter farewell for many of those leaving.
“I can still barely understand what happened,” said Qais Hassan, a pro-opposition activist reached in Duma who said he would be boarding a bus the next day. “Seven years of frustration and sadness, with my house and my neighborhood totally destroyed.
“I’m leaving here with nothing and going to the unknown, to somewhere with no house, no family, and I don’t know anyone there,” he continued. “My only reason for living is to see the end of this butcher Assad.”
Times staff writers Zavis and Wilkinson reported from Beirut and Washington, respectively, and special correspondent Bulos from Amman, Jordan. Times staff writer Noah Bierman in Washington and special correspondents Noga Tarnopolsky in Jerusalem, Sabra Ayres in Moscow and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.
6 p.m.: This article was updated with quotes from U.N. session, analysts.
2 p.m.: This article was updated with the United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss the suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria and other details.
9:40 a.m.: This article was updated with Trump comments.
9:05 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting, including additional details about the attack on the Syrian air base and response to the suspected chemical weapons attack.
This article was originally published at 2:40 a.m.