Updated: 3:51 p.m. E.T.
At least 58 people, including 11 children, were killed in a suspected chemical gas attack believed to have been conducted by Syrian government jets in the rebel-held province of Idlib early Tuesday, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and local health officials.
Reports of the chemical attack come just days after U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley called Syrian President Bashar Assad a “war criminal” while also saying that his removal was no longer America’s top “priority.” Haley’s comments were the latest in a string of statements from the Trump administration that signal a change of U.S. policy in Syria, with the war against ISIS now taking top billing.
On Tuesday White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer repeated the Trump administration’s position that Assad was now a “political reality.” Spicer called the attacks “heinous” but added that they were the “consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.” Trump continued the attack on his predecessor’s policy decisions, repeating Spicer’s line in an official presidential statement released later in the day.
Images from the scene of the attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun showed victims with foam at their mouths and shrunken irises. Doctors in the area said the victims’ symptoms were consistent with exposure to deadly sarin gas, a banned chemical weapon.
“This morning, at 6:30 a.m., warplanes targeted Khan Sheikhoun with gases believed to be sarin and chlorine,” Mounzer Khalil, head of Idlib’s health authority, told a news conference.
Aircraft later fired rockets on clinics treating the wounded, medics and activists said.
A Syrian military source denied it had used chemical weapons, and Russia’s defense ministry insisted it had not conducted airstrikes in the area.
If confirmed, this would be the deadliest chemical attack in Syria since sarin killed hundreds of civilians in Ghouta near Damascus in August 2013. That attack, which Western governments and monitoring groups blamed on Assad, and Assad blamed on rebels, brought the U.S. to the brink of an intervention to remove the Syrian president.
Instead, a deal was struck for the country’s chemical arsenal to be destroyed.
Nearly four years on, Assad still clings to power, anchored by Russian and Iranian support that has swung the war his way. Reported chemical attacks have continued at a lower level but with impunity.
Not that much of a shift
The statements from Trump administration officials mark a stark departure from the Obama administration’s public position, which at first explicitly called for Assad’s immediate ouster, then shifted to acknowledge Assad would likely remain in power but couldn’t be part of any post-transition government.
“Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes,” Haley said last Thursday. “Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No.”
Haley’s comments drew ire from within Trump’s own party. Sen. John McCain criticized the public pivot, reiterating his criticism Tuesday and saying the Syrian strongman was likely emboldened by the recent comments. “I’m sure they are encouraged to know the United States is withdrawing and seeking a new arrangement with the Russians,” McCain told CNN.
But analysts told VICE News that they don’t see the newly stated position as a significant move away from the status quo. Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal, said that the Trump administration’s position marked a rhetorical shift but reflected the reality of America’s position under Obama.
“The Obama administration laid down a red line, backed off of it, have had five-plus years to make an effort to remove Assad, and at the same time have worked with Russia peripherally to ensure there were no problems in their military operations against the Islamic State,” he said.
Roggio said the U.S. statements may embolden Assad to some extent, but that he would have already been emboldened by America’s failure to act against him in 2013.
“What emboldens him more?” Roggio said of Assad. “The U.S. saying we’re going to take him out if he conducts chemical attacks and then backing off? Or the U.S. saying he’s not really a priority?”
Randa Slim, an analyst at the Middle East Institute, took a similar position, writing that the latest statements on Assad merely reflected the public embrace of “policies which the Obama White House pursued covertly.”
Business as usual
“He’s been doing this all along,” Roggio said of Assad’s brutal attacks against his own people. “He doesn’t need a statement from the U.S. as an excuse to drop a barrel bomb.”
Since the Ghouta massacre, chemical attacks have continued in Syria, albeit on a much smaller scale. Many of them have involved chlorine gas, which was not included in the chemical weapons deal because it also has legitimate non-military uses.
A joint investigation by the U.N. and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found in October that Syrian government forces had used chlorine on at least three occasions in 2014 and 2015, while ISIS had used sulphur.
In January 2016, OPCW said a sample from a victim of one attack showed the presence of sarin or a similar substance. In February, Human Rights Watch accused government helicopters of dropping chlorine bombs on rebel areas of Aleppo during the final stages of the battle for the city.
France called for an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting over the attack, while Turkey, which backs rebels in the conflict and has been a key broker in ceasefire talks, warned the assault could hurt attempts to negotiate a solution to the conflict.