NEW: Russian envoy to UN says lack of vote open room for further talks
US Secretary of State says "steps are underway" to remove Syrian President
Russia has challenged US President Donald Trump to set out his strategy on Syria after he said an apparent chemical weapons attack had transformed his views on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Trump, who has previously argued against removing Assad from power, said the attack on a rebel-held town in Syria’s Idlib province was a “heinous” act that “crossed a lot of lines for me.”
The President has not offered any details of how US strategy on Syria would change – but he did tell some members of Congress that he’s considering military action in Syria in retaliation for Tuesday’s chemical attack, a source familiar with the calls told CNN on Thursday.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff held a quickly called meeting in the office of the chairman, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, on Thursday afternoon and were briefed on the military options regarding Syria, a US military official told CNN.
The attack killed at least 86 people, including 26 children.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters that “steps are underway” to organize an international effort to remove Assad. He called on Russia to “consider carefully” its continued support for the Syrian regime.
When asked whether Russia would reconsider its backing for Assad, Russia’s Foreign Ministry instead challenged the United States to show its cards.
“Russia’s approach to Assad is clear. He is the legal president of an independent state. What is the US approach?” ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told CNN in a text message.
Kremlin spokessman Dmitry Peskov warned against “snap judgments” on what happened in Idlib. “It’s indeed a very menacing course of events, dangerous and horrible crime. However, sticking labels on everyone, prematurely, is not a correct thing to do, in our opinion,” he said.
Russia is Syria’s most powerful ally and has provided the military might behind Assad’s grip on the country, which plunged into civil war six years ago.
World leaders scramble
At the United Nations, diplomats from the United States, United Kingdom and France circulated a new draft resolution against the Syrian government, but the 15 members of the Security Council failed Thursday night to reach agreement.
Syria attack: Related coverage
The draft demands that all parties “provide delay-free and safe access to any sites deemed relevant by the (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Fact Finding Mission).”
The OPCW said its investigation into the Tuesday attack is ongoing.
The draft also emphasizes that the Syrian government is obligated to provide flight logs filed on Tuesday and to arrange requested meetings, including ones with generals or other officers.
The Security Council ended up with two other competing draft resolutions.
Russia’s deputy ambassador Vladimir Safronkov said he thought the US decision to not bring its draft to a vote “opened a window for further work, for attempts to find a common denominator.” Closed-door discussions took place after a regularly scheduled Security Council meeting.
In talking about potential US military action in Syria, Safronkov said, “First of all, you have to think about negative consequences. All responsibility … will be on shoulders of those who initiated such doubtful and tragic enterprise.”
Several countries have said they believe the Syrian regime carried out the attack, including the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Turkey.
US military and intelligence officials told CNN that Syrian planes dropped bombs at the time and place that the chemical attack was reported to have happened. A US official said radar intelligence followed the radar track of regime airplanes and the infrared heat signature of the bombs.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem denied the government carried out airstrikes at the time of the attack and repeated the government’s claims it had never used chemical weapons and never would.
He said the government’s first strike happened at 11:30 a.m., about five hours after reports of the chemical attack emerged.
That strike hit a depot holding chemical weapons smuggled into the country by terrorist group Al Nusra Front, he said.
Russia said that the deaths were caused by the Syrian regime strike on the munitions depot. But several chemical weapons experts dismissed Russia’s claims as “chemically impossible” and “laughable.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was “premature to accuse the Syrian government of using chemical weapons in Idlib,” insisting on a full investigation.