President Donald Trump on Tuesday canceled plans to travel to South America this week, choosing to stay in the United States to manage the U.S. response to Syria’s apparent chemical weapons attack on civilians.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday that Trump will not attend the 8th Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru or travel to Bogota, Colombia, as planned, remaining in the United States to “oversee the American response to Syria and to monitor developments around the world.”
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The president’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, urged Trump to skip the trip, an official said. This reflects a view in the White House that deeper Russian and Iranian involvement in Syria have complicated calculations about a response to any U.S. military attack, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Moscow has cautioned the U.S. not to launch a military attack.
Trump’s decision to skip the South America trip marks the first time an American president has not attended the summit. Vice President Mike Pence will travel in Trump’s place, attending the summit in Lima but not traveling to Colombia.
The international chemical weapons watchdog said it will send “shortly” a fact-finding mission to the Syrian town where the suspected gas attack took place, after receiving a request from the Syrian government and its Russian backers to investigate the allegations. It was not immediately clear whether the announcement by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons would delay or avert U.S. military action against Syria.
In New York, U.N. Security Council diplomats said the United States called for a vote on a resolution that would condemn the continuing use of chemical weapons in Syria “in the strongest terms” and establish a new body to determine responsibility for chemical attacks. The diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of an announcement, said the U.S. asked for a midafternoon vote.
Trump on Monday promised a decision on Syria within hours, although he did not say when a decision would be implemented. He declared that Russia or any other nation found to share responsibility for Saturday’s apparent chemical weapons attack on civilians will “pay a price.”
Amid the tough talk from the White House, the U.S. military appeared to be in position to carry out any attack order. A Navy destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, got underway in the eastern Mediterranean on Monday after completing a port call in Cyprus. The guided missile destroyer is armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, the weapon of choice in a U.S. attack one year ago on an airfield in Syria following an alleged sarin gas attack on civilians.
Also, the Navy said the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier and its strike group will depart Norfolk, Virginia, on Wednesday for a regularly scheduled deployment to Europe. The Navy does not currently have a carrier in the Persian Gulf.
The White House sharply rejected any suggestion that Trump’s own words about pulling U.S. troops out of Syria had opened the door for the attack, which killed more than 40 people, including children.
Trump, asked whether Russian President Vladimir Putin bore any responsibility, responded, “He may, yeah, he may. And if he does it’s going to be very tough, very tough.” He added, “Everybody’s gonna pay a price. He will. Everybody will.”
The Russian military, which has a presence in Syria as a key Assad ally, said its officers had visited the weekend site in a suburb of Damascus, the Syrian capital, and found no evidence to back up reports of poison gas being used. Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, accused Washington of deliberately stoking international tensions by threatening Russia in a tone “beyond the threshold of what is acceptable, even during the Cold War.”
Trump said there was little question that Syria was responsible for the apparent weekend attack, although the government of President Bashar Assad denied it. “To me there’s not much of a doubt, but the generals will figure it out,” Trump said.
He promised a decision on a possible military response within 24 to 48 hours, “probably by the end of today.”
Emphatic in his condemnation of the apparent gas attack, Trump noted graphic pictures of the dead and sickened, calling the assault “heinous,” ?atrocious,” ?horrible” and “barbaric.”
Fielding questions at the White House on Monday, Trump press secretary Sarah Sanders said it would be “outrageous” to say that Trump’s recent announcement that he intends to remove all U.S. forces from Syria in the coming months had emboldened Assad. “I think that it is outrageous to say that the president of the United States green-lit something as atrocious as the actions that have taken place over the last several days,” she said.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, in separate remarks at the Pentagon, also suggested Moscow bore some blame. He criticized Russia for what he suggested was its failure to ensure the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal under terms of a 2013 agreement.
Trump said, “If it’s Russia, if it’s Syria, if it’s Iran, if it’s all of them together, we’ll figure it out.”
An American official said the U.S. was discussing with allies whether they would participate in a retaliatory strike. If Trump decides to proceed quickly, the most likely partner would be France rather than Britain, because of concerns about obtaining permission from Parliament, said the official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the planning publicly and requested anonymity.
As U.S. officials consider whether and how to respond, they are looking at what type of chemical agent might have been used. When Trump ordered airstrikes last year after a chemical weapons attack, it was a response to the use of sarin gas, which is banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention that Syria has signed. An attack with chlorine, which can be used as a weapon but is not outright banned by the treaty, could raise precedent issues, as there have been numerous recent allegations of chlorine attacks in Syria that have drawn no response from the Trump administration.