Syria chemical weapons attack: US denies missile strike
Donald Trump insists US forces played no part in overnight raid as Russia and Syria blame Israel
The UN Security Council is expected to convene an emergency meeting later today in response to a suspected chemical attack by the Syrian government.
At least 70 people, including many women and children, were killed in the rebel-held enclave of Douma in Eastern Ghouta on Saturday, according to local rescue workers and medical staff.
The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations told the BBC that victims were being treated for symptoms consistent with nerve or mixed nerve and chlorine gas exposure.
Warning: video contains distressing footage
Donald Trump led international condemnation of the atrocity, warning that there will be a “big price to pay” for Bashar al-Assad’s government and its allies in Russia and Iran.
The Syrian government has denied responsibility, while Moscow and Tehran said the “fabricated” reports would be used as an excuse by Western nations to take military action against Damascus.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claims his country’s military specialists have visited the area and “did not find any trace of chlorine or any other chemical substance used against civilians”.
Last night Syria’s state news agency Sana said an airbase near the city of Homs had come under missile attack.
The Pentagon denied any US involvement, but analysts say Trump’s remarks, which come exactly a year after he ordered a missile strike in response to a deadly sarin gas attack, suggest another assault is likely.
Senior White House aides said military action had not been ruled out, according to Reuters. “I wouldn’t take anything off the table,” said Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser.
It leaves open the question of whether the US president will opt for a “discrete punishment or a more ambitious and coordinated” response, says The Guardian’s diplomatic editor Patrick Wintour.
The advantage of a single retaliatory punishment is simplicity, says Wintour, noting: “That would suit the instincts of a president who only last week said he intended to take all remaining US troops out of Syria.”
“But there are powerful forces urging a broader sustained programme of action, including France, Israel and the UK, as well as some in the Pentagon,” he adds.
Meanwhile, Russia and Syria have blamed Israel for the airbase attack.
According to Sky News, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the missile strike killed 14 people, most of whom were either Iranian or members of groups backed by Iran in Syria.
Russia’s Defence Ministry believes that two Israeli F-15 warplanes launched the attack on the Tiyas military base, also known as T-4, from Lebanese territory, reports state-run Russian news agency RIA Novosti.
Lavrov described it as a “provocation” and a “very dangerous development”.
“I hope at least that the US military and those of the countries participating in the coalition led by the United States understand that,” the minister said.
Syrian state media cited a military source who also blamed Israel for the strike.
Israel attacked the T-4 base in February, and accused the Syrian regime of allowing Iran to use the military complex in order to supply advanced weaponry to Shia militia groups in the region.
Texas-based intelligence company Stratfor told Australian broadcaster ABC that the global condemnation of Saturday's chemical attack gave Israel a window to carry out the latest strike.
“Israel has a narrow window of opportunity to target Hezbollah and other strategic targets while the group is still exposed in the Syrian Civil War and while Israel has strong backing from a White House that is particularly hawkish on Iran,” Stratfor claims.
Israel has refused to comment on the speculation over its involvement.
Israel’s “official stance on the Syrian conflict is neutral, but it has acknowledged carrying out some strikes on Syrian military targets, while denying responsibility for numerous others”, says CNN.
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in an interview with an Israeli newspaper last month that his country had been acting militarily in Syria in recent months, the broadcaster adds.
“A large part of Israeli army activity does not find its way on to (Israeli newspapers and websites) ... and that is good,” Lieberman said. “It’s just not right to say that we don’t act.”