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Trump threatens action on Syria chemical attack after suggesting U.S. military presence pullout

President Trump said Monday there would be a price to pay for Saturday's apparent chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma, days after Trump said he wanted the U.S. out of Syria entirely. Early in the morning, airstrikes hit a Syrian base near Homs, which Russia and Syria pinned on Israel. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.

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  • William Brangham:

    President Trump will soon decide what the U.S. response will be to the latest alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria by the Assad regime. The U.S. suspects a nerve agent was used.

    Mr. Trump consulted his national security team and with allies today, all this following a weekend strike on a Damascus suburb.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson in Beirut begins our coverage.

    And a warning, Images in this report will disturb many viewers.

  • President Donald Trump:

    It was an atrocious attack. It was horrible.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    In the Cabinet Room this morning, President Trump said there would be a price to pay for Saturday's apparent chemical attack.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We will be making major decisions over the next 24 to 48 hours.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Footage from the Damascus suburb of Duma shows humanity under siege. Not even children were spared from the latest atrocity. Asked if he would answer the attack with airstrikes, President Trump had this to say:

  • President Donald Trump:

    Nothing's off the table.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The U.S. denied responsibility for airstrikes that hit a Syrian base near Homs early this morning. Russia and Syria said Israel launched the strike. An Israeli spokesperson would neither confirm nor deny it.

    As news of the suspected gas attack spread yesterday, President Trump reacted on Twitter, calling out Russian President Vladimir Putin by name for backing — quote — "animal Assad."

    In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted the Russian military had found no signs of chemicals in Duma.

  • Sergei Lavrov (through translator):

    The Syrian government also spoke about that, a serious provocation aimed at accusing Damascus once again for using chemical poisonous substances against civilian population.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The images of the carnage in Duma were searing, but familiar. Last April, a sarin gas attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun in Syria's north killed more than 80 people.

    President Trump ordered airstrikes on the base where the attack was launched. In 2012, President Obama said any use of chemical weapons by Assad would be a red line for the U.S. But after a nerve gas attack in 2013, instead of launching airstrikes, Mr. Obama instead struck a deal with Russia to move Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons, or so they thought.

    Since then, Assad's regime has doused rebel enclaves in chemicals dozens of times, often using chlorine gas, which wasn't included in the 2013 deal. As subsequent attacks have made clear, Syria didn't disclose its entire arsenal. The latest assault comes at a pivotal moment. Just last week, President Trump said he wanted to get out of Syria entirely.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I want to bring our troops back home. It's very costly for our country and it helps other countries a hell of a lot more than it helps us. So, we're going to be making a decision.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Republican Senator John McCain warned against pulling out the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops, based largely in Syria's Northeast. He tweeted that, "The president's pledge to withdraw from Syria has only emboldened Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, to commit more war crimes in Duma."

    At a U.N. Security Council meeting this afternoon, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley sharply condemned the attack and the regime.

  • Nikki Haley:

    Who does this? Only a monster does this. We must not overlook Russia and Iran's roles in enabling the Assad regime's murderous destruction.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    And the U.N. human rights chief had tough words, blasting world powers for their — quote — "collective shrug" in the face of the Syrian regime's brutality.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Beirut¯

  • William Brangham:

    I spoke with Jane Ferguson a short time ago.

    Jane, President Trump today strongly suggesting that he is going to militarily strike Syria for this latest chemical weapons attack. How are those threats being heard where you are?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    In the region, William, nobody's really responding definitively yet to those words from President Trump. And that's largely because no one knows yet what they are going to be responding to.

    Of course, as you say, it sounds like a clear threat for military action, but it's not really a specific one.

  • William Brangham:

    There was a counterstrike that happened earlier today, and many believe that Israel perpetrated that counterstrike.

    If it was Israel, this may not be in fact a retaliation to the chemical weapons attack. It may be more about Israel's concern over Iran in Syria. Is that right?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    That's much more likely, William. For the Israelis, their main concern for the last few years, basically since Iran has been involved in this war, since 2013, when we started to see Hezbollah, the militant group from here in Lebanon, move into Syria, the Israelis have been concerned about making sure that they don't build their capacity just across the Israeli border into Syria.

    Israel is worried about Iran building a permanent and complex military presence across the border, and also that Iran could essentially get a land boundary going across the Middle East from Iran through Iraq, through Syria and to Lebanon, to their satellite group Hezbollah. They don't want them moving weapons¯

    And we have seen these sorts of strikes from the Israelis. Now, of course, they almost never publicly acknowledge that it's them, but these strikes happening that are preventing weapons or weapons convoys getting to Hezbollah or trying to limit and basically manage Iran's military capabilities across the border from Israel.

  • William Brangham:

    President Trump back here in the U.S. seems to be giving two different messages. He's threatening strikes today against Syria, but yet, just last week, he was talking about the need, that it's time for the U.S. to go home and leave Syria.

    I'm just curious, in your reporting, what is your sense? Do these retaliatory strikes against Assad actually do anything to deter his behavior?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    It doesn't seem to have so far. Of course, that strike a year ago now that President Trump authorized after the use of sarin gas against the civilians by President Assad has clearly not deterred him from using chemical weapons.

    And we have seen chlorine gas used again and again. But it's also important, William, to point out that Assad has also lived through President Obama's red line years ago. Of course, we hear these strong words coming out of the White House, but it doesn't appear to be deterring President Assad, who is, of course, gaining the upper hand and has been for years now.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, special correspondent Jane Ferguson, thank you very much.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Thank you.

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