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Trump warns of ‘big price to pay’

By Nabih Bulos, Alexandra Zavis and Laura King • Apr 8, 2018 at 9:37 PM

AMMAN, Jordan — Dozens of people were killed in an apparent poison gas attack on a suburb of Damascus as troops loyal to the government pressed an offensive to take back one of the last rebel-held bastions near the Syrian capital, opposition activists and aid groups said Sunday.

Doctors and first responders shared horrific images on social media of men, women and children they said had suffocated in their homes and in makeshift shelters during an intense bombardment Saturday night of the city of Douma, in the eastern Ghouta region. Some of the videos and photographs showed piles of glassy-eyed bodies, many with white foam filling their mouths and nostrils.

President Donald Trump blamed the Syrian government and warned of a “big price to pay” in a series of tweets that also took aim at Russian President Vladimir Putin for backing his Syrian counterpart, Bashar Assad, whom Trump called “Animal Assad.”

Trump’s condemnation of what he termed a “mindless CHEMICAL attack” raised the prospect of U.S. military retaliation almost exactly a year after the president ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base following a sarin gas attack — a move that won him some of the highest foreign-policy praise of his presidency.

The United States and eight other countries — France, Britain, Sweden, Poland, the Netherlands, Kuwait, Peru and Ivory Coast — called for the United Nations Security Council to meet Monday to discuss the reports of another chemical weapons attack in Syria.

“The Security Council has to come together and demand immediate access for first responders, support an independent investigation into what happened and hold accountable those responsible for this atrocious act,” U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said in a statement.

The Syrian government and its Russian allies, however, dismissed the accusations as rebel fabrications intended to win international support in the face of imminent defeat in Douma.

The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) quoted an unidentified military source Sunday as saying that “an army that is progressing quickly … does not need to use any kind of chemical weapons.”

Rescue workers found at least 42 people who suffocated in their homes, according to the Syria Civil Defense, a team of first responders working in opposition areas, and the Syrian American Medical Society, a Washington-based relief organization that supports health facilities in the area.

Some 500 others were brought to medical centers with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent, including difficulty breathing, foaming at the mouth, burning eyes and skin discoloration, the groups said in the statement. One person was pronounced dead on arrival, and six others died after they reached a clinic.

Members of the Syria Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, said the attack was carried out by a Syrian government helicopter, which dropped “barrel bombs” filled with a chemical agent. Barrel bombs are typically built from oil drums or water tanks that are filled with explosives and metal detritus.

It was not immediately clear what kind of chemical agent might have been used. Local medics and rescue workers said some of the victims were emitting a “chlorine-like odor.” Others showed signs of exposure to an “organophosphate element,” a reference to chemicals found in insecticides and nerve agents.

Opposition activists and first responders described whole families found suffocated, and graphic images of the tiny slumped bodies of dead or dying children were widely circulated on social media.

In one video, a person is heard commenting off camera on the “powerful smell” as he and other activists race through a building searching for victims. The smell was so intense in places that first responders were unable to evacuate the bodies, the Syria Civil Defense said.

The authenticity of the images could not be independently verified. The Syrian government and its allies — including Russia and Iran-backed militias — have Douma surrounded, making it impossible for independent journalists and aid workers to access the city.

The suspected attack took place during a barrage of airstrikes, artillery and mortar fire that killed at least 56 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition watchdog based in Britain. The group could not confirm the use of chemical weapons but said at least 21 of the victims suffocated because of smoke inhalation in their basements.

“We’re talking about hundreds of airstrikes, rockets and mortars on a small area,” Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the Observatory, said by phone Sunday. “People don’t have the ability to withstand this amount of smoke.”

The Syrian government has consistently denied the use of chemical weapons during seven years of grinding civil war.

A Syrian Foreign Ministry official was quoted by SANA as saying that the “claims of using chemical weapons have become a boring record that is unconvincing except to some of the nations that bargain on the blood of civilians and support terrorism in Syria.”

Damascus considers all rebels to be terrorists aided by its regional and international enemies.

The U.S. State Department issued a statement saying it was closely following the “disturbing reports … regarding another alleged chemical weapons attack.”

“These reports, if confirmed, are horrifying and demand an immediate response by the international community,” it said.

The statement added that the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in the past “is not in dispute” but said Russia, a key backer of Assad, “ultimately bears responsibility for these brutal attacks.”

In addition to lashing out at Russia and Iran, Trump also singled out his predecessor, President Barack Obama, for not attacking Assad after a sarin gas attack killed more than 1,000 people in the Ghouta region in 2013 — a supposed “red line” that, in lieu of a U.S.-led offensive, resulted in an 11th-hour deal in which Damascus agreed to give up its chemical weapons arsenal.

“If President Obama had crossed his stated Red Line In The Sand, the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago! Animal Assad would have been history!” Trump tweeted.

Last year, after another sarin attack killed nearly 100 people in the northern rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, Trump ordered Tomahawk cruise missiles fired at a Syrian government airbase where chemical weapons were said to have been stored.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry Sunday dismissed claims of chemical weapons use as “fake news.”

“It is necessary to once again caution that military intervention under false and fabricated pretexts in Syria, where the Russian servicemen stay at the request of the legitimate government, is absolutely unacceptable and may trigger the gravest consequences,” the ministry said, according to the Russian state news agency TASS.

More than 1,600 people have been reported killed in eastern Ghouta since Syrian government troops, backed by Russian air power, launched a ferocious campaign to take back the rebel-held enclave in February. Rebel forces have also fired rockets into densely populated neighborhoods of Damascus, spreading fear among its residents.

In recent weeks, the government had offered rebel factions in eastern Ghouta the now-standard deal it has extended to other besieged areas of the country, granting safe passage to those who refuse to lay down their arms to leave to Idlib in the northwest of Syria. Tens of thousands of people have since been bused there from the region, including fighters from Faylaq al-Rahman and Ahrar al-Sham, Islamist groups backed by Qatar and Turkey.

A similar deal was offered to the Army of Islam, the dominant faction in Douma, while granting fighters who wanted to remain in the city the chance to join an auxiliary force that would work alongside government troops, on the condition that they hand over their heavy weaponry.

In recent days, a temporary truce had taken hold in Douma, as a trickle of wounded fighters and civilians left the rebel bastion. And though hostilities resumed Friday, there had been reports on Saturday night of a deal to end the standoff.

On Sunday night, Syrian state media reported buses had begun to mass in Douma ahead of a transfer that would see civilians and Army of Islam fighters go to Turkish-held areas in Syria’s north. There was no confirmation from the Army of Islam, but Qais Hassan, a Douma-based activist, said an agreement had been forged.

With the battle for eastern Ghouta all but finished, it was unclear what a chemical weapons attack would achieve for either side.

“If the government did it, it would be an effort to break the will of the rebels, a message telling them the war has ended, no one is here to save them, and they have to surrender,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma.

If the rebels were responsible, he continued, it would be a last-ditch effort “to raise the ante on Assad and make him pay.”

“The trouble is that there have been so many terrible massacres in this war on all sides that it’s easy to despair of humanity’s altruism,” said Landis. “The veneer of civilization seems to have completely collapsed.”

Tobias Schneider, an independent security analyst who has been tracking the use of chemical weapons in Syria, said there have been numerous reports of the government using chlorine gas in eastern Ghouta and other rebel-held areas.

He was skeptical that the government would have anticipated the possibility of a punitive strike by the U.S., saying the only reason that this attack was drawing international opprobrium was because of the scale of the casualties.

“This is something the government has been doing consistently for well over five years now,” he said. “If anything, it would be surprising if they stopped doing it.”

Trump’s warning of a “big price to pay” follows a week in which the president — to the dismay of some senior advisers and the surprise of Pentagon officials — called for a quick pullout of U.S. troops engaged in the fight against the extremist group Islamic State in Syria. Some senior lawmakers said Trump’s comments on Twitter might now essentially commit him to taking some action.

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 in an interview with ABC’s “This Week.” He called it a “defining moment.”

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(Special correspondent Bulos reported from Amman and staff writers Zavis and King reported from Beirut and Philadelphia, respectively.)

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©2018 Los Angeles Times

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