Trump vows quick decision on Syria after suspected chemical attack

U.S. President Donald Trump has condemned a suspected chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town in Syria that killed dozens of people, saying he would likely make a decision on a response by the end of the day.

'Important decisions are being weighed even as we speak,' Nikki Haley tells UN

An alleged chemical weapons attack affected people in the rebel-held town of Douma, Syria. Dozens of people were reportedly killed. (White Helmets/Reuters)

U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday condemned a suspected chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town in Syria that killed dozens of people and said he would make a decision on a response, probably by the end of the day.

Speaking at a cabinet meeting, Trump said he was talking to military leaders and would decide who was responsible for the attack — whether it was Russia, or the Syrian government, or Iran or all of them together.

"Nothing is off the table," he said when asked if U.S. military action was a possibility.

International bodies led by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are trying to establish exactly what happened Saturday in Douma, a besieged town in eastern Ghouta near Damascus.

The OPCW said it has been "closely monitoring the incident" in Douma. The organization's fact-finding mission, which was first established in 2014 after allegations of chemical attacks in Syria, is "in the process of gathering further information from all available sources to establish whether chemical weapons were used."

The Syrian government and its ally Russia have denied involvement.

Trump's UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, had harsh words for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Monday, telling a meeting of the Security Council on Monday afternoon that "important decisions are being weighed even as we speak."

Nikki Haley says the 'monster' behind deadly chemical attack 'has no conscience' 1:38

The U.S., she said, "will respond" whether the council takes action or not.  How exactly the U.S. might respond, however, wasn't immediately clear. 

Haley said many of the victims of the most recent attack were hiding in basements to try and take shelter from conventional weapons and shelling. But those basements, she said, " became their tombs" when chemical weapons were used.

"Who does this? Only a monster does this," Haley said. 

Haley's comments came not long after the Russian UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, told the council "there was no chemical weapons attack."

Bashari Jaafari, Syria's representative at the UN, addressed the Security Council late in the meeting, where he said evidence of a chemical attack is fabricated. Syria, he said, is prepared to facilitate an OPCW visit to Douma.

He also used his appearance before the Security Council to attack the credibility and intentions of the U.S., saying the meeting was a pretext for military action against Syria. 

'Established pattern'

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders also spoke of the attack on Monday, telling reporters in Washington that Saturday's deadly attack is "consistent" with Assad's "established pattern of chemical weapons use."

Sanders said Trump is "confident" in the intelligence related to the attack but she will not specifically say if the U.S. government has determined that Assad's government was behind the attack.

U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said he would not rule out military action such as airstrikes if blame was proved.

Mattis accused Russia of falling short on its obligations to ensure that Syria abandoned its chemical weapons capabilities.

"The first thing we have to look at is why are chemical weapons still being used at all when Russia was the framework guarantor of removing all the chemical weapons." 

'Big price to pay'

Trump said Sunday after initial reports of an attack that there would be a "big price to pay."

Exact numbers are hard to determine, as access to the area is limited. But a Syrian medical relief group said at least 60 people had been killed and more than 1,000 injured in several sites in Douma.

The stakes were further raised on Monday when unidentified war planes struck a Syrian airbase near Homs, killing at least 14 people, including Iranian personnel. Syria and Russia accused Israel of carrying out the attack.

Israel, which has struck Syrian army locations many times in the course of its neighbour's seven-year-old civil war, has neither confirmed nor denied mounting the raid. 

But Israeli officials said the Tiyas, or T4, airbase was being used by troops from Iran and that Israel would not accept such a presence in Syria by its arch foe.

The two incidents in Douma and Tiyas demonstrated the complex and volatile nature of the Syria war, which started in March 2011 as an anti-Assad uprising and now involves a number of countries and myriad insurgent groups.

Assad now has the upper hand in the conflict, largely thanks to Russian intervention on his side, but any international action could delay his efforts to bring it to close.

Range of options

Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, told the Security Council that civilians are paying a heavy price for military escalation and called for restraint. The first priority, he said, should be protecting civilians — from war, from chemical weapons, from hunger.

Attack kills dozens in Douma, but government denies involvement 1:11

Ahead of the meeting, Britain said it was working with its allies to agree a joint response to the reported chemical attack on Douma.

"If there is clear verified evidence of the use of chemical weapons and a proposal for action where the U.K. would be useful, then we will look at the range of options," Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesperson said.

France said it would work closely with the United States on a response to the suspected chemical attack. Both countries agreed responsibility for the strike must be established.

The numbers keep rising as relief workers struggle to gain access to the subterranean areas where gas has entered and hundreds of families had sought refuge.- Union of Medical Care Organizations

President Emmanuel Macron, who spoke to Trump by telephone on Sunday, had issued repeated warnings previously that France would strike if proof of lethal chemical attacks were established. But Paris stopped short of apportioning blame on Assad's forces for Saturday's attack.

Trump had referred in a tweet to "Animal Assad," and criticized Russia and Iran for backing the Syrian leader, directly naming Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile, said such allegations were false and a provocation. 

Syrian government forces had launched an air and ground assault on Douma, the last rebel-held town in the eastern Ghouta district, on Friday.

One video shared by activists showed bodies of about a dozen children, women and men, some with foam at the mouth. Reuters could not independently verify the reports.

Haley described graphic images and videos from Syria, saying the images showed victim's whose skin "is the ashen blue that is now tragically familiar from chemical weapons scenes."

A medical worker gives toddlers oxygen through respirators following the alleged attack. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

The OPCW, based in The Hague, said people were possibly gassed to death by a poisonous cocktail of sarin and chlorine.

A doctor in Ghouta quoted by UOSSM said patients were coughing blood, a symptom not seen in previous chemical attacks.

UN war crimes investigators had previously documented 33 chemical attacks in Syria, attributing 27 to the Assad government, which has repeatedly denied using the weapons.

The United States fired missiles on a Syrian airbase a year ago in response to the killing of dozens of civilians in a sarin gas attack in an opposition-held town in northwest Syria, blamed on Assad.

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press