United States President Donald Trump has turned 360 degrees in his view on Syria and its leader President Bashar al-Assad after watching TV footage of children choking to death as a result of chemical warfare, blamed on Assad.
The footage was a defining moment for the mercurial leader as declared that his view of the conflict had been changed by an attack that “cannot be tolerated.”
“It crossed a lot of lines for me,” Trump told reporters at a joint White House news conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah, alluding to Obama’s failure to enforce his own 2013 “red line.”
“When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, little babies… that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line, many, many lines,” he warned.
“I will tell you, it’s already happened, that my attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much… You’re now talking about a whole different level.”
Trump did not go into detail about what any US response to the atrocity would be — and he has previously opposed deeper US military involvement in Syria’s civil war.
But his new stance on the Syrian conflict and his threat of a unilateral action may set America and Russia on a collision course in the conflict.
At least 86 people were killed early on Tuesday in rebel-held Khan Sheikhun in northern Syria and dozens more are being treated after they were found convulsing and foaming at the mouth.
After previous major chemical attacks in Syria in 2013, Trump strongly urged then president Barack Obama not to order military intervention against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
And he came to office promising both to improve ties with Assad’s ally President Vladimir Putin of Russia and to focus US efforts in Syria solely on the defeat of the Islamic State group.
But he spoke as the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, warned of unilateral action and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged Russia to rethink its support for Assad.
“There is no doubt in our mind that the Syrian regime under the leadership of Bashar al-Assad is responsible for this horrific attack,” Tillerson told reporters.
“And we think it is time for the Russians to really think carefully about their continuing support for the Assad regime.”
Tillerson is due in Moscow next week for talks that will now be clouded by the Khan Sheikhun controversy.
At the United Nations, Haley was equally forthright.
“When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action,” she said.
The warning came during an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council called by France and Britain after the attack was carried out in the early hours on Tuesday.
Haley lashed out at Russia for failing to rein in its ally Syria, standing in the UN Security Council with photographs of lifeless children, choked in the attack.
“How many more children have to die before Russia cares?” she demanded. “If Russia has the influence in Syria that it claims to have, we need to see them use it.”
Britain, France and the United States have presented a draft resolution demanding a full investigation of the attack.
Russia — along with Iran — is Syria’s main diplomatic and military partner. And Moscow, true to form, said the draft Security Council text was “categorically unacceptable.”
The draft backs a probe by the Organization of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and demands Syria provide information on its operations.
Russia’s deputy ambassador Vladimir Safronkov told the UN council that the proposed resolution was hastily prepared and unnecessary, but voiced support for an inquiry.
“The main task now is to have an objective inquiry into what happened,” he said.