What is the O.P.C.W., and Can It Referee on Chemical Weapons in Syria?


Its job is to monitor compliance with that treaty, and to work toward ridding the world of chemical weapons. It also has a role in verifying the elimination of those weapons.

The group describes itself as “an independent, autonomous, international organization with a working relationship with the United Nations.”

In 2013, Syria signed the convention and agreed to eliminate its chemical weapons stockpiles. On a joint mission with the United Nations, the organization arranged for the transport of all chemical weapons the Syrian government had declared for disposal overseas.

Over 96 percent of state-declared stockpiles around the world have been destroyed under the watch of the organization. However, as seems to be the case in Syria, that doesn’t necessarily mean that countries no longer have chemical weapons, because there is no way to guarantee that they declared everything they had.

How can inspectors work in a war zone?

The organization was not created to work in battle zones and has had to adapt to send its inspectors to countries at war. In 2014, allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria prompted the group to dispatch a fact-finding mission to the country, the first time it had sent a team to an area of active conflict. (They first visited Syria in 2013.)

Photo

Residents of Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, protested last April after a suspected chemical weapons attack on their town.

Credit
Omar Haj Kadour/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Collecting samples while making sure they can be used for evidence takes time, and such missions can turn investigators into targets. While working in Syria in 2014, for example, their convoy came under fire.

Last year, while looking into further allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, investigators did not visit the town of Khan Sheikhoun because of security fears. Instead, they relied on witness accounts and samples collected from the site. That opened their conclusions to criticism from Russia and Syria, which contended that Damascus had disposed of all its chemical weapons.

Can the O.P.C.W. point the finger?

No. The organization’s job is to establish whether chemical weapons were used, not who used them.

“It’s dealing with things it wasn’t really intended to deal with,” said Richard Guthrie, a chemical weapons expert and editor of CBW Events, a website that tries to document uses of chemical and biological weapons.

When the Chemical Weapons Convention was being negotiated, Mr. Guthrie said, “the concern was large-scale use of chemical weapons on the battlefield — that had happened in the Iran-Iraq war.” But that is different from identifying the relatively small-scale use of chemical weapons, like the alleged case in Syria, or the attack on the spy and his daughter in Britain.

Until the end of last year, the organization had a mandate to pass on its findings to a Joint Investigative Mechanism, established by the United Nations Security Council, which would try to identify the perpetrators of attacks. But last year Russia vetoed the extension of that mandate.

That leaves a disconnect: Even if the organization finds that chemical weapons were used in Douma, the question of who is to blame could remain unresolved.

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After Trump Strikes Syria, Syrians Wonder ‘What’s Next?’


Seven years in, some now argue that the only realistic way to stop the war, prevent a jihadist resurgence and allow the country to move on is to acknowledge that Mr. Assad, with help from Iran and Russia, will remain in power and to effectively let him win.

Once the guns fall quiet, they say, Syria’s other sizable issues can be addressed: the fight between Turkey and the Kurds in the north; the shadow war between Iran and Israel; and the rebuilding of destroyed communities so that refugees can return.

Ceding that much to Mr. Assad has long been anathema in Washington and other Western capitals, where policymakers believe he should be punished for his brutality during the war and have vowed not to contribute to reconstruction as long as he remains in power.

Some counter that if the West refuses to invest the resources needed to determine Syria’s future, its efforts to penalize Mr. Assad will make life worse for average Syrians.

“You are not punishing Assad, you are punishing the poor Syrian people,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “If America’s objectives are countering terrorism, stabilization and the return of refugees, all of these will fail.”

President Trump ordered Saturday’s strikes, which were carried out in conjunction with Britain and France, to punish Mr. Assad for an apparent chemical attack in Douma a week before.

Photo

Syrians in the Old City of Damascus on Sunday.

Credit
Hassan Ammar/Associated Press

The strikes were not intended to topple Mr. Assad, damage the Russian and Iranian allies that support his troops, or protect civilians from violence. In fact, they were meticulously planned and executed to avoid altering the overall dynamics of the conflict and keep the United States from getting dragged further in.

That frustrated Mr. Assad’s foes.

“The American strikes did not change anything for Syrians,” said Osama Shoghari, an anti-government activist from Douma who is struggling to start a new life in an unfamiliar town 180 miles away from his home. “They did not change anything on the ground.”

The West’s resistance to further intervention is good news for Russia and Iran, and of course for Mr. Assad, who was happy on Sunday, according to a group of Russian politicians who visited him.

“President Assad has an absolutely positive attitude, a good mood,” said Natalya Komarova, a member of the delegation, according to Russian news agencies.

But in an acknowledgment of the war’s toll, another visitor reported that Mr. Assad said rebuilding Syria could cost $400 billion.

If the primary message of the strikes was that Mr. Assad could not use chemical weapons, a secondary message was that the West was going to leave him in power, no matter what else he did.

“Even if this is a chemical weapons deterrent, that leaves a whole arsenal of conventional means with which people can be killed in Syria with few real repercussions,” said Sam Heller, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group who studies Syria. “There is every reason to expect that that will continue.”

Seven years of conflict have seen Syria sliced up by world powers, with the Turks administering towns in the north, the United States working with Kurdish-led militias in the east, and Russia and Iran helping Mr. Assad rout the remaining pockets of rebels elsewhere.

At this point, no one seems to have a realistic plan to broker a lasting peace between those forces that would bring Syria together again in a stable enough way to allow millions of refugees to return home and for rebuilding to begin. Many discount the idea that Mr. Assad can play a meaningful role in that process.

“It very shortsighted and erroneous in my mind,” said Maha Yahya, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “Facilitating a win for Assad is making sure that Syria remains the epicenter of instability in the region.”

Research by the center has found that if Mr. Assad remains in power, it would discourage the return of Syrian refugees from neighboring countries and Europe. “They are not going back as long as Assad is in power because they don’t believe that there will be safety and stability while Assad is there,” Ms. Yahya said.

The only solution, she said, is a settlement between Russia and the United States that other powers, like Turkey and Iran, could eventually be brought into. But reaching such an agreement would involve an intensity of diplomatic efforts that Mr. Trump’s administration is not interested in.

Photo

Syrian families displaced from eastern Ghouta held pots as they waited to receive food at a shelter in the Damascus countryside on Friday.

Credit
Hassan Ammar/Associated Press

After announcing Saturday’s strikes, Mr. Trump painted a pessimistic view of the United States’ ability to effect change in the Middle East.

“No amount of American blood or treasure can produce lasting peace and security in the Middle East,” he said. “It’s a troubled place. We will try to make it better, but it is a troubled place.”

He suggested that Arab allies could play an increased role, mentioning Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Qatar. But the first two are bogged down in a war in Yemen, and the first three are locked in a bitter dispute with the fourth, making it unclear how they would work together to fix Syria.

Before the strikes, Mr. Trump froze $200 million in stabilization aid for Syria and said that he wanted to bring home the roughly 2,000 American troops now in eastern Syria.

Besides working with a Kurdish-led militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces to fight the Islamic State, the United States is helping restore areas like the city of Raqqa that were recently retaken from the jihadists.

Given the tremendous damage to the city, this is a gargantuan task, said Mustafa al-Abed, of the Raqqa Civil Council, which is supported by the United States. Among his group’s priorities are fixing the water and electricity networks, clearing rubble from roads and restoring irrigation networks so that farmers can plant.

But before that can happen, and before residents can return to their homes, the city must be cleared of the many mines and explosive booby traps that the jihadists planted before their defeat.

“They are everywhere,” Mr. Abed said of the mines. “In homes, in cars, in roads. There is no normal size or place. They are everywhere.”

He was dismissive of Saturday’s strikes, which he said were preceded by so many threats from Mr. Trump that the Syrian government had ample time to evacuate buildings and hide sensitive materials.

“They have used all kinds of weapons,” he said, of the Syrian government’s forces. “So the strikes should have been strong enough to break the back of the regime.”

The only thing that was preventing the government, Russia and Iran from returning to his part of the country was the presence of American troops, he said. He feared what would happen if the United States left.

“We will go back to being a region of struggles, like we were before,” he said. “We’ll return to fighting and fear and blood.”

Continue reading the main story

News Analysis: A Hard Lesson in Syria: Assad Can Still Gas His Own People


So far, officials say, two factors make them wonder whether the facilities were still central to Syria’s program. At this point, there are no known casualties at the sites, which suggests that either no one was there during the evening, or they had been previously abandoned. And there are no reports of chemical agent leakage from the sites, despite attacks by more than 100 sea- and air-launched missiles.

Whether those particular sites were still in use or not, the conflict in Syria has demonstrated a larger truth: While it is easy to blow up Mr. Assad’s chemical facilities, it is also relatively simple for him to reconstitute them elsewhere, or just turn to a commercially available substance like chlorine to make a crude poison that any nation is allowed to possess.

That may explain why General McKenzie was a little more circumspect than his predecessors in forecasting the long-range effectiveness of the latest strikes.

“I would say there’s still a residual element of the Syrian program that’s out there,” he told reporters at the Pentagon on Saturday.

“I believe that we took the heart of it out with the attacks that we accomplished last night,” he continued. But he added that “I’m not going to say that they are going to be unable to continue to conduct a chemical attack in the future.” Instead, he said, he believed that “they’ll think long and hard about it.”

His comment seemed to reflect a central fact: Mr. Assad has learned a lot about how to hide his stockpiles from inspectors. One of the failings of the accord between Russia and the United States that was supposed to rid Syria of chemical arms in 2014 was that it was based on Syria’s “declared” stockpiles, a nuance Mr. Kerry took care to note. There was never confidence that the Russians had succeeded in removing as many weapons stores as they claimed, or in destroying production facilities.

Photo

A photograph said to show victims of a chemical attack a week ago on Douma, near Damascus.

Credit
Emad Aldin/EPA, via Shutterstock

One of the sites struck on Saturday, the Barzeh research and development center, has long been known to American intelligence officials and to international inspectors, according to a senior intelligence official.

Administration officials briefing reporters Saturday afternoon said that equipment at that site and two others — the Him Shinshar chemical weapons storage facility and a nearby “bunker facility” — were destroyed, setting back Mr. Assad’s program by months or years. But they were careful not to claim that the facilities were actively in use at the time of the attack.

“In relation to the Barzeh target, yes, we assessed that there were probably some chemical and nerve agents in that target,” General McKenzie said. Those, however, could have been residual, or long abandoned.

Sophisticated facilities are not needed to produce chlorine, the agent that Syrian forces are suspected to have used a week ago to kill dozens of civilians, including children. It is commercially available, used for water systems. And the nerve agent sarin, which the White House has said may also have been used a week ago, can be produced just about anywhere, as a French intelligence report released on Saturday noted.

The report concludes that “the Syrian military retains expertise from its traditional chemical weapons agent program to both use sarin and produce and deploy chlorine munitions.” The United States, it noted, “also assesses the regime still has chemicals — specifically sarin and chlorine — that it can use in future attacks.”

That is a stark difference from the declarations made in June 2014, when the joint mission between the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons trumpeted that Syria or other parties had destroyed, with the exception of a dozen facilities, all “declared production, mixing and filling equipment and munitions, as well as many buildings associated with its declared chemical weapons program.”

Chlorine presents a particular challenge for governments and organizations seeking to control chemical weapons. It is both very lethal and very necessary, and legal to possess in all nations, said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Mr. Knights, who studied the use of chlorine as a weapon by Al Qaeda in Iraq a decade ago, said that the militants used to pair it with explosives, which would burn it off. Using it the way Mr. Assad’s forces have — essentially dropping it in concentrated form in a barrel — can lead to far more casualties.

“The most dangerous prospect was that someone would use chlorine in the way that the Syrian regime has done and disperse it in a whole community,” he said. “It is a dangerous element, and you cannot remove it from any environment in the Middle East,” given its importance in water purification.

As a result, chemical weapons treaties do not bar its possession. But the Chemical Weapons Convention, which went into force in 1997 and which Syria joined, under pressure, in 2013, does bar deliberately using it as a poison gas.

Nations have been finding loopholes in such international agreements — or ignoring them entirely — since the first failed efforts to bar such weaponry more than a century ago. Mr. Assad has clearly calculated that turning a widely available chemical into a weapon to clear out neighborhoods and create terror is a potent option.

What We Know About the Three Sites Targeted in Syria

American officials called the sites “fundamental components” of Syria’s chemical weapons program.


“For me, the big story is chlorine; it’s not sarin,” Mr. Knights said. “The regime has been good at using a chemical weapon that has enormous availability and is produced in completely legal, dual-use facilities and vital to the running of any country.”

“Intent is the problem when you’ve got a regime that loves using this stuff,” he added. “You either have to deter the regime from using it by imposing significant costs, or you have to get rid of the regime. But there is no way you can get rid of the capability.”

No international investigative body has yet determined what chemicals were used in the attack last Saturday in Douma, near Damascus. The American intelligence assessments suggest that while chlorine was the primary chemical, “some additional information points to the regime also using” sarin, which is more dangerous and harder to handle.

Videos taken in the aftermath of the attack show large yellow canisters that experts have said appear to be chlorine tanks, of the kind often used for civilian purposes.

Some videos show one canister that appears to have either broken through a wall or flown through a hole in it and landed on a bed without exploding.

Another video shows a similar canister that appears to have knocked a hole in the concrete roof of an apartment building.

Syrian activists who visited the site, as well as a report by Bellingcat, a group that conducts investigations with open-source data, said that the canister had fallen on the roof of a building where dozens of people had been sheltering on the lower floors.

The available evidence suggests that whatever substance was in the canister was released after it landed and wafted down the stairs, killing those on the floors below.

Subsequent videos show dozens of men, women and children lying lifeless on the ground with foam coming from their mouths and nostrils and what appear to be burned corneas. Both symptoms can be caused by chlorine.

In a series of tweets after studying the attack, Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, said that the canister appeared to have been dropped toward no specific target, and had just happened to land on a densely packed building.

Had the canister fallen elsewhere, Mr. Higgins wrote, “we’d see a fraction of deaths, and you probably wouldn’t have even heard about it happening.”

“It was really just thanks to the catastrophic success of the chlorine attack that anyone even cared, not anything that Assad could have planned for,” Mr. Higgins wrote.

Continue reading the main story

News Analysis: A Hard Lesson in Syria: Assad Can Still Gas His Own People


So far, officials say, two factors make them wonder whether the facilities were still central to Syria’s program. At this point, there are no known casualties at the sites, which suggests that either no one was there during the evening, or they had been previously abandoned. And there are no reports of chemical agent leakage from the sites, despite attacks by more than 100 sea- and air-launched missiles.

Whether those particular sites were still in use or not, the conflict in Syria has demonstrated a larger truth: While it is easy to blow up Mr. Assad’s chemical facilities, it is also relatively simple for him to reconstitute them elsewhere, or just turn to a commercially available substance like chlorine to make a crude poison that any nation is allowed to possess.

That may explain why General McKenzie was a little more circumspect than his predecessors in forecasting the long-range effectiveness of the latest strikes.

“I would say there’s still a residual element of the Syrian program that’s out there,” he told reporters at the Pentagon on Saturday.

“I believe that we took the heart of it out with the attacks that we accomplished last night,” he continued. But he added that “I’m not going to say that they are going to be unable to continue to conduct a chemical attack in the future.” Instead, he said, he believed that “they’ll think long and hard about it.”

His comment seemed to reflect a central fact: Mr. Assad has learned a lot about how to hide his stockpiles from inspectors. One of the failings of the accord between Russia and the United States that was supposed to rid Syria of chemical arms in 2014 was that it was based on Syria’s “declared” stockpiles, a nuance Mr. Kerry took care to note. There was never confidence that the Russians had succeeded in removing as many weapons stores as they claimed, or in destroying production facilities.

Photo

A photograph said to show victims of a chemical attack a week ago on Douma, near Damascus.

Credit
Emad Aldin/EPA, via Shutterstock

One of the sites struck on Saturday, the Barzeh research and development center, has long been known to American intelligence officials and to international inspectors, according to a senior intelligence official.

Administration officials briefing reporters Saturday afternoon said that equipment at that site and two others — the Him Shinshar chemical weapons storage facility and a nearby “bunker facility” — were destroyed, setting back Mr. Assad’s program by months or years. But they were careful not to claim that the facilities were actively in use at the time of the attack.

“In relation to the Barzeh target, yes, we assessed that there were probably some chemical and nerve agents in that target,” General McKenzie said. Those, however, could have been residual, or long abandoned.

Sophisticated facilities are not needed to produce chlorine, the agent that Syrian forces are suspected to have used a week ago to kill dozens of civilians, including children. It is commercially available, used for water systems. And the nerve agent sarin, which the White House has said may also have been used a week ago, can be produced just about anywhere, as a French intelligence report released on Saturday noted.

The report concludes that “the Syrian military retains expertise from its traditional chemical weapons agent program to both use sarin and produce and deploy chlorine munitions.” The United States, it noted, “also assesses the regime still has chemicals — specifically sarin and chlorine — that it can use in future attacks.”

That is a stark difference from the declarations made in June 2014, when the joint mission between the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons trumpeted that Syria or other parties had destroyed, with the exception of a dozen facilities, all “declared production, mixing and filling equipment and munitions, as well as many buildings associated with its declared chemical weapons program.”

Chlorine presents a particular challenge for governments and organizations seeking to control chemical weapons. It is both very lethal and very necessary, and legal to possess in all nations, said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Mr. Knights, who studied the use of chlorine as a weapon by Al Qaeda in Iraq a decade ago, said that the militants used to pair it with explosives, which would burn it off. Using it the way Mr. Assad’s forces have — essentially dropping it in concentrated form in a barrel — can lead to far more casualties.

“The most dangerous prospect was that someone would use chlorine in the way that the Syrian regime has done and disperse it in a whole community,” he said. “It is a dangerous element, and you cannot remove it from any environment in the Middle East,” given its importance in water purification.

As a result, chemical weapons treaties do not bar its possession. But the Chemical Weapons Convention, which went into force in 1997 and which Syria joined, under pressure, in 2013, does bar deliberately using it as a poison gas.

Nations have been finding loopholes in such international agreements — or ignoring them entirely — since the first failed efforts to bar such weaponry more than a century ago. Mr. Assad has clearly calculated that turning a widely available chemical into a weapon to clear out neighborhoods and create terror is a potent option.

What We Know About the Three Sites Targeted in Syria

American officials called the sites “fundamental components” of Syria’s chemical weapons program.


“For me, the big story is chlorine; it’s not sarin,” Mr. Knights said. “The regime has been good at using a chemical weapon that has enormous availability and is produced in completely legal, dual-use facilities and vital to the running of any country.”

“Intent is the problem when you’ve got a regime that loves using this stuff,” he added. “You either have to deter the regime from using it by imposing significant costs, or you have to get rid of the regime. But there is no way you can get rid of the capability.”

No international investigative body has yet determined what chemicals were used in the attack last Saturday in Douma, near Damascus. The American intelligence assessments suggest that while chlorine was the primary chemical, “some additional information points to the regime also using” sarin, which is more dangerous and harder to handle.

Videos taken in the aftermath of the attack show large yellow canisters that experts have said appear to be chlorine tanks, of the kind often used for civilian purposes.

Some videos show one canister that appears to have either broken through a wall or flown through a hole in it and landed on a bed without exploding.

Another video shows a similar canister that appears to have knocked a hole in the concrete roof of an apartment building.

Syrian activists who visited the site, as well as a report by Bellingcat, a group that conducts investigations with open-source data, said that the canister had fallen on the roof of a building where dozens of people had been sheltering on the lower floors.

The available evidence suggests that whatever substance was in the canister was released after it landed and wafted down the stairs, killing those on the floors below.

Subsequent videos show dozens of men, women and children lying lifeless on the ground with foam coming from their mouths and nostrils and what appear to be burned corneas. Both symptoms can be caused by chlorine.

In a series of tweets after studying the attack, Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, said that the canister appeared to have been dropped toward no specific target, and had just happened to land on a densely packed building.

Had the canister fallen elsewhere, Mr. Higgins wrote, “we’d see a fraction of deaths, and you probably wouldn’t have even heard about it happening.”

“It was really just thanks to the catastrophic success of the chlorine attack that anyone even cared, not anything that Assad could have planned for,” Mr. Higgins wrote.

Continue reading the main story

In Moscow, a Sense of Relief After a Limited Syria Attack


Mr. Assad has become something of a “human shield” limiting Russia’s options, noted Vladimir Frolov, an independent foreign affairs analyst and columnist for Republic.ru, “but it was a choice that Moscow made.”

President Putin often waits for days before weighing in on an international crisis, so his issuing a statement within hours of the attack indicated that the Kremlin considered it a critical situation.

Mr. Putin called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the attack. Other than that, however, he limited himself to repeating Russian claims that no chemical attack had taken place to warrant the onslaught, and that Washington was only worsening a dire humanitarian crisis.

“Russia condemns in the strongest possible terms the attack against Syria, where Russian military personnel are assisting the legitimate government in its counterterrorism efforts,” Mr. Putin said in the statement. “Through its actions, the U.S. makes the already catastrophic humanitarian situation in Syria even worse and brings suffering to civilians.”

Like Mr. Assad, Russia condemns all opponents of the Syrian government as “terrorists.”

The calmer tone was a noticeable change from preceding weeks, when many commentators suggested that the United States and Russia were slouching toward a replay of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which brought the two Cold War adversaries to the brink of a nuclear confrontation.

Some Russian news outlets, while trying to make light of the panic mode, also provided practical advice, like which Moscow metro stations were the most secure against nuclear attack and how much water people should take with them to a bomb shelter.

Photo

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in eastern Ghouta last month. Mr. Assad labels all opponents of the Syrian government “terrorists.”

Credit
Syrian Arab News Agency, via European Pressphoto Agency

In the weeks before the attack, Moscow issued repeated warnings, particularly from Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, the chief of staff for the armed forces, that the Kremlin would “take retaliatory measures.” The general hinged his warning on the important caveat that Russia would attack missiles and the platforms from which they were launched only in the event that Russian military personnel were placed in danger.

The attack was barely over before the Defense Ministry rushed out its statement stressing that its two main installations in Syria — the air base at Hmeimim and the naval base at Tartus — had not been threatened.

Lt. Gen. Sergei F. Rudskoi, the head of the military’s operations department, said at a briefing that no cruise missiles fired during the attack entered the Russian air-defense zones and repeated the Russian assertion that the attack had nothing to do with chemical weapons.

“We believe that this strike is not a response to an alleged chemical attack, but a reaction to the successes of the Syrian armed forces in the struggle to liberate their territory from international terrorism,” he said.

If anything, the Kremlin may have been somewhat pleased, albeit secretly, that the United States had hit targets well away from the primary areas of Russian control, one analyst suggested.

“Russia has its own zone of interests in Syria, which is on the shore of the Mediterranean,” said Aleksei V. Makarkin, of the Center for Political Technologies.

“The U.S. hit targets that are outside of this zone,” he said. “Of course Russia is upset, but this is just an element of the new Cold War, only one element among several, including sanctions, which are a much more serious problem for Russia.”

In one telling sign of the lack of urgency regarding Syria, the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian Parliament, put out a statement saying it would discuss the airstrikes “next week.”

At home, of course, the bluster will continue. “For the domestic audience, everything will be covered by tough statements,” said Mr. Golts, the military analyst, noting that few in Russia will complain that the Kremlin did not follow through on its threats to attack the United States military assets in the region.

While the Russian military has undergone an overhaul in recent years and has developed some high-tech cruise missiles and other weapons, a direct confrontation with the United States forces in Syria risked a humiliating walloping, he noted.

The secretive Russian mercenary forces in Syria already lost “a couple of hundred” fighters in a skirmish with American-backed Kurdish forces in February, the C.I.A. director and secretary of state nominee, Mike Pompeo, said in Senate testimony last week. Russia had no desire for a similar confrontation involving its regular forces.

Photo

Lt. Gen. Sergei F. Rudskoi said at a briefing Saturday that no cruise missiles fired during an attack Saturday morning by the United States and its allies entered Russia’s air-defense zones.

Credit
Kirill Kudryavtsev/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Putin has twin goals in Syria. First, he is staunchly opposed to regime change fostered by outsiders of the kind that brought chaos to Iraq and Libya.

Second, he sees Syria as leverage to restore Moscow not only to its role as a power broker in the Middle East, but to the status of world policeman that it shared with the United States in Soviet days. The fact that Mr. Trump has started to criticize him and Russia more openly for allying with Mr. Assad has yet to dent those hopes.

In his speech Friday night, Mr. Trump said Russia and Iran should not want to be associated with a “mass murderer” like Mr. Assad, and — as he did after a more limited attack on Syria for the same reason a year ago — declared that Mr. Putin and Russia had failed to fulfill the promise to eliminate all Syria’s chemical weapons.

“Russia must decide if it will continue down this dark path or if it will join with civilized nations as a force for stability and peace,” Mr. Trump said. “Hopefully, someday we’ll get along with Russia and maybe even Iran, but maybe not.”

Mr. Putin will accept limited strikes against Syria that do not indicate a sustained American effort to help the opposition, said Mr. Frolov, the foreign affairs analyst, and would avoid engaging Mr. Trump on the rest.

“The Kremlin is still hoping for a summit with Trump, so it will largely ignore his comments about Putin,” Mr. Frolov said. “There is still some residual hope that a good personal meeting may turn things around.”

The Russians did crow that Syrian air defense systems had managed to shoot down a dozen or so cruise missiles, using equipment “manufactured more than 30 years ago in the Soviet Union,” according to the Interfax news agency. The United States military did not confirm or deny the assertion.

The Russian Foreign Ministry greeted the missile attack with its habitual sarcasm. Without naming the United States specifically, Maria Zakharova, the spokesman for the ministry, zeroed in on the claims of moral leadership and exceptionalism among the allies who launched the attack.

“You have to be really exceptional to shell Syria’s capital at the moment when the country is getting a chance for a peaceful future,” she wrote on Facebook.

In a news briefing on Saturday, a spokeswoman for the United States Defense Department, Dana W. White, said, “The Russian disinformation campaign has already begun.” She noted, “There has been a 2,000 percent increase in Russian trolls in the last 24 hours.”

Even with the immediate threat of a confrontation out of the way, several Russian analysts noted that the proximity of the two sides in Syria, not to mention the shifting positions of Mr. Trump, left plenty of room for confrontation.

“The danger is that at one point something completely unexpected and spontaneous can happen — for instance a missile can miss its target and hit something sensitive,” said Mr. Makarkin.

Continue reading the main story

With Eye on Issues at Home, May and Macron Back Trump on Syria Strikes


At the same time, Mr. Macron is trying to reinforce France’s position as an enforcer of international treaties, which includes the Chemical Weapons Convention that 192 countries have signed.

Mrs. May is in a more precarious position, with a tense standoff developing with Russia over the poisoning of a former Russian spy, Sergei V. Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, with a weapons-grade nerve agent. Mrs. May has been under pressure to respond forcefully to Moscow for the attack, which exposed hundreds of citizens in southwest England to the deadly substance.

On Saturday, the British leader described the airstrikes in Syria as “right and legal,” drawing an explicit distinction between those and the poisoning of the Skripals — the first use of chemical weapons in Europe since World War II.

Mrs. May also benefited from the timing of the airstrikes, two days before lawmakers were to return from vacation. While not obligated to consult Parliament, she may have felt constrained to do so and could easily have lost a vote on a strike. Another imperative for Britain was to reciprocate the support that London has received from the United States in the dispute with Russia over the poisoning.

“I don’t think she had much choice,” said Justin Bronk, a research fellow for air power at the Royal United Services Institute, a defense and security focused research institute in London. “By announcing the strikes through Twitter, President Trump made this a personal call to action with his own image and credibility at stake, and he’s an openly transactional president.”

Britain also wants to prove its use as an ally to Mr. Trump at a time when its international influence is under question because of its withdrawal from the European Union, and as it hopes to strengthen trade ties with the United States.

On Saturday, as reaction to the strikes rolled in from around the world, Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter: “A perfectly executed strike last night. Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military. Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!”

Photo

Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain drew an explicit distinction between the missile strikes in Syria and the poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil.

Credit
Pool photo by Will Oliver

Opinion polls suggested that the British public’s support for strikes was lukewarm. So in backing Mr. Trump’s airstrikes without seeking prior approval from lawmakers, Mrs. May took a political risk, albeit one that should be manageable unless the conflict escalates.

The prime minister did come in for criticism. The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, criticized Mrs. May, arguing that “bombs won’t save lives or bring about peace.”

Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, faulted Mrs. May for failing to follow recent precedent and seek parliamentary approval. But Mrs. May brushed aside the protests, presenting her decision to order “limited, targeted and effective” strikes against Syria as vital in deterring future use of chemical weapons.

London has looked on with concern as Mr. Macron has cultivated close ties with Mr. Trump, while Mrs. May’s relationship with the White House has been more complicated and tense.

Mr. Macron, for his part, faced criticism on the far left and the far right for his decision to join the attack on Syrian targets. The leader of the far left France Insoumise party, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, accused Mr. Macron on Twitter of attacking Syria without proof of chemical weapons use and without a United Nations mandate, a European Union agreement or a vote of the French Parliament.

“This is a North American adventure of revenge, an irresponsible escalation,” Mr. Mélenchon said.

On the extreme right, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, said France had lost a chance to “appear on the international scene as an independent power.” The party’s deputy leader, Nicolas Bay, called Mr. Macron “a vassal” of the United States.

For both Mrs. May and Mr. Macron, the strikes made good on their respective predecessors’ pledges to retaliate over Syria’s use of chemical weapons. In 2013, when the government of President Bashar al-Assad was suspected of using chemical weapons on his own people, both François Hollande, then president of France, and David Cameron, then Britain’s prime minister, said he had cross their red lines.

But when it came down to launching the missiles, Mr. Cameron failed to secure Parliament’s approval, and Mr. Hollande backed down when it became clear that President Barack Obama had second thoughts because he was afraid of being drawn into a larger fight with Mr. Assad.

It was easier for the leaders to sign on to this missile attack, as there was no discussion about a far-reaching military campaign or about regime change. And there was an explicit effort to avoid hitting bases where troops from Russia and Iran, allies of Mr. Assad, might be amassed.

The United Nations Security Council was meeting on Saturday afternoon to discuss the missile strikes in Syria. European Union foreign ministers, meanwhile, planned to meet on Monday to tackle the tense situation in Syria. A draft statement, written before the strikes, proposed looking at fresh sanctions on Syria, including blacklisting more people over the development and use of chemical arms.

The NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, expressed support for the strikes by its three member states, saying that they “will reduce the regime’s ability to further attack the people of Syria with chemical weapons.”

Mr. Stoltenberg said in a statement that Syria’s use of chemical weapons was “a clear breach of international norms and agreements.”

He added, “NATO considers the use of chemical weapons as a threat to international peace and security, and believes that it is essential to protect the Chemical Weapons Convention,” which Syria signed in 2013, leading to a ban in the country on the manufacture or use of such weapons.

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News Analysis: ‘Mission Accomplished’? But What Is the Mission in Syria?


Many veterans of Washington policymaking in the Middle East offered conditional praise for Mr. Trump’s restrained approach to the strike, if not necessarily his rhetoric. In hitting three sites associated with Mr. Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities, limiting it to a single night and conducting it in conjunction with Britain and France, they said it sent a message while avoiding a deeper involvement and minimizing the risk of provoking Syria’s patrons, Russia and Iran, into retaliating themselves.

“However, I don’t think the strike clarifies U.S. policy,” said Meghan O’Sullivan, who oversaw the Iraq war as Mr. Bush’s deputy national security adviser. “In theory, there is not necessarily an inconsistency between a targeted, multilateral strike against chemical weapons sites and the withdrawal of troops that have been fighting ISIS. But the strike does really call into question the wisdom of pulling back American forces now in highlighting the question of what our objective really is in Syria.”

Others argued that the strike was a waste that accomplished little and, in the process, exceeded the president’s authority as commander in chief since he did not obtain authorization from Congress first. Critics said that if Mr. Trump was truly moved by humanitarian concern over the victims of last weekend’s attack, he should reverse his policy of banning virtually all Syrian refugees.

“The ongoing bloodshed and war crimes in Syria are a stark reminder that Syrian civilians need our support now more than ever,” Noah Gottschalk of Oxfam America said in a statement. “Yet the Trump administration still lacks a coherent strategy to actually bring an end to the conflict and instead has sought to slash humanitarian aid and slam the door on Syrian refugees.”

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Debris at the Syrian Scientific Research Center, near Damascus, which was targeted by American, British and French military strikes. The airstrikes against research and military targets were part of what officials said was an effort to deter future chemical attacks.

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Hassan Ammar/Associated Press

By most accounts, the strike essentially left in place the status quo on the ground. It did little if anything to weaken Mr. Assad beyond any chemical weapons stores it destroyed, leaving him to continue waging war on his own people through conventional means. It did nothing to exact the “big price” Mr. Trump promised to impose on Russia and Iran for enabling Mr. Assad’s chemical attacks.

Indeed, Mr. Trump has shown little interest in trying to steer Syria to a resolution of its civil war, eschewing the sort of Geneva diplomacy that consumed Mr. Obama’s last secretary of state, John F. Kerry, to little apparent effect. Mr. Trump sees Syria in two boxes — the fight against the Islamic State, in which he has declared near victory, and the multisided civil war that he wants no part of, saying as he did just days ago, “Let the other people take care of it now.”

But that is an artificial bifurcation in a country torn by violence on all sides. The civil war affects the ability of the Islamic State to operate and vice versa. Mr. Trump may have opted for the more cautious approach urged by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis instead of a more crippling attack that may have been favored by his new national security adviser, John R. Bolton, but he did not settle the larger question.

Asked on Friday before the missiles began flying to explain America’s strategy in Syria, Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, demurred. “I’m not going to get ahead of the president,” she said.

Even when the president spoke later that night, however, he was somewhat vague in describing his own strategy. While he said he was “prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” he did not explain what he meant or how far he was willing to go.

Mr. Trump often seems unaware of history, even recent history. His use of the phrase “mission accomplished” on Saturday, for example, invited unwelcome comparisons to Mr. Bush’s experience. Mr. Bush appeared on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 after American troops toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq and declared the end of major combat operations. Behind him was a large banner declaring “Mission Accomplished,” which White House aides later said was meant as a congratulations to the carrier crew returning home but became a metaphor for miscalculation as a virulent insurgency emerged.

“Um…I would have recommended ending this tweet with not those two words,” Ari Fleischer, who was Mr. Bush’s White House press secretary at the time, wrote on Twitter on Saturday. At the time, he said, the words seemed fitting. “By the Fall,” he added, “the shot of Bush with the banner became a symbol of what went wrong.”

Phillip H. Gordon, who was Mr. Obama’s White House coordinator of Middle East policy, said one of the challenges for Mr. Trump was calibrating his language with his actions. In effect, Mr. Gordon said, the president seemed to be trying to find a reasoned middle ground in Syria that belies his own tough talk.

“You can make a case that we are trying to thread a needle that’s tough to thread, but the needle is to do enough to deter the regime from using chemical weapons but not so much that sucks us into the Syrian civil war and gets us into conflict with Iran and Russia,” he said.

Rather than pay attention to Mr. Trump’s words, Mr. Gordon said the strategy was better articulated by Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain and Mr. Mattis, who described the strike as an effort to stop Mr. Assad from using chemical weapons but noted that it was not intended to achieve broader goals.

“What May and Mattis said could be considered a legitimate strategy,” Mr. Gordon said. “The risk is with this president and this administration, is he going to be disciplined enough and restrained enough to thread that needle? Those are not his fortes.”

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Pentagon Says Syria Strikes Hit ‘Heart’ of Chemical Weapons Program


The United States is “locked and loaded” to strike again if Mr. Assad again is believed to have used chemical weapons, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the Security Council on Saturday at an emergency meeting called by Russia.

“We are confident that we have crippled Syria’s chemical weapons program. We are prepared to sustain this pressure, if the Syrian regime is foolish enough to test our will,” Ms. Haley said.

She said that Russia had failed to abide by a 2013 promise to ensure that Syria got rid of its chemical weapons stockpiles

“While Russia was busy protecting the regime, Assad took notice,” she said. “The regime knew that it could act with impunity, and it did.”

The strikes hit Syria before dawn on Saturday, with loud explosions jolting residents of Damascus, the capital, from their beds as their walls and windows shook. American officials said the offensive was to punish Syria for what they called a chemical weapons strike last Saturday on civilians in Douma.

A group from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which had announced a fact-finding mission to determine if chemical weapons were used in the Douma attack, arrived in Damascus on Saturday morning, the group said in a statement.

A statement by the Syrian military said 110 missiles had been fired. Three people were injured in Homs, it said. Videos from Damascus showed Syrian air defense missiles launching into a dark night sky, and the Russian military said that at one Syrian air base, all 12 cruise missiles that targeted the site had been shot down.

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“No amount of American blood or treasure can produce lasting peace and security in the Middle East,” President Trump said in his statement announcing the airstrikes. “It’s a troubled place. We will try to make it better, but it is a troubled place.”

Credit
Tom Brenner/The New York Times

Defense Department officials batted down those claims, saying that the entire American-led operation was over and the targets were destroyed before Syria launched any of the 40 missiles it fired into the air.

“Taken together, these attacks were able to overwhelm the Syrian air defense system,” Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the Pentagon’s Joint Staff director, said at a news conference. “None of our aircraft involved were successfully engaged by Syrian defense forces.”

He added that the barrage of missiles had hit their targets within a couple of minutes at most. He said that all three targets had been destroyed, and that all warplanes had returned safely to base.

But the strikes were limited, with an eye on making sure they did not draw retaliation from Russia and Iran and set off a wider conflict. For that reason, Mr. Assad may still be able to use chemical agents in the future.

“I would say there’s still a residual element of the Syrian program that’s out there,” General McKenzie said. “I’m not going to say that they’re going to be unable to continue to conduct a chemical attack in the future. I suspect, however, they’ll think long and hard about it.”

The limited nature of the strikes left some observers underwhelmed.

“If this is it, Assad should be relieved,” tweeted Randa Slim, an analyst at the Middle East Institute.

Sure enough, early Saturday morning, Mr. Assad’s office posted a video that appeared to show him strolling into work in a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase as if nothing had happened.

Condemnation of the strikes from Syria’s allies was swift.

“The United States and its allies continue to demonstrate blatant disregard for international law,” said the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vasily A. Nebenzya, on Saturday. “It’s time for Washington to learn that the internal code of behavior regarding the use of force is regulated by the United Nations Charter,” he added.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, called the strikes “a crime” and the leaders of the United States, France and Britain “criminals.”

“But they will not benefit from this attack, just as they committed similar crimes over the past years during their presence in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan and did not benefit from them,” he said.

There were no signs of immediate retaliation, suggesting that Mr. Assad and his allies planned to weather the storm, perhaps in the belief that the United States was mostly concerned with avoiding deeper involvement.

“If I were Assad, I would be thinking, ‘Let them get it out of their system. Things are still trending in the right direction today,’ ” said Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “Nothing that Trump said on television really touched on the Syrian conflict.”

In announcing the strikes Friday night, Mr. Trump suggested that more American action could be on the way. “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” Mr. Trump said. Other officials, however, said the United States and its allies were done for now.

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Syrian government supporters waved Syrian, Iranian and Russian flags in Damascus on Saturday, after the missile strikes.

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Hassan Ammar/Associated Press

Saturday’s strikes were more extensive than those Mr. Trump launched in the wake of another reported chemical attack last year, but much has changed in Syria in the meantime to make Mr. Assad and his allies more secure.

The rebels who once threatened his control have been routed from all of Syria’s major cities, and even from smaller strongholds like Douma, the last town they held near Damascus, which they surrendered after the reported chemical attack killed dozens of people last weekend.

Meanwhile, the war has further shattered Syria, and international powers including the United States, Russia, Turkey, Israel and Iran — along with militant groups including Hezbollah — have intervened to fight for their interests.

Iran and Russia have expanded their military reach. Russia has a presence on most Syrian military bases, and its air force has been essential to Mr. Assad’s recent advances. Iran has used the chaos of war to strengthen its proxies to deter and possibly confront Israel.

The United States still has about 2,000 troops in eastern Syria working with a Kurdish-led militia to fight the jihadists of the Islamic State. But with the militants now nearly defeated, American officials have started thinking about when to withdraw. Before the suspected chemical weapons attack in Douma, Mr. Trump had said he wanted to bring them home soon.

While the United States called for Mr. Assad to leave power early in the conflict and gave cash and arms to the rebels who sought to overthrow him, it has more recently resigned itself to his remaining in power. That was partly because it feared the vacuum that could emerge if Mr. Assad’s government collapsed, and partly because it was clear that Russia and Iran were willing to invest more in winning than the United States was.

So Saturday’s strikes remained focused on punishing him for using chemical weapons. Last year’s strikes had the same goal, but only succeeded for a limited time.

“Military interventions have a shelf life,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who studies Syria. “For a certain time, it prevented them from using chemical weapons, but after a while it dissipated. So we’ll have to wait to see how this attack is different.”

Mr. Assad’s allies probably know that any direct retaliation against the United States could quickly escalate into a war they do not want. But they could look for other ways to respond, by striking American allies in Iraq, Syria and Israel, or brutalizing Syrian civilians with conventional weapons in areas the rebels still control.

But they have made it clear that they will seek to protect their substantial investments of blood and treasure.

Before the strikes, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, warned the United States against taking “reckless steps,” comparing American strikes in Syria to its interventions in Libya and Iraq. “Now, I hope, no one will gamble on embarking on such a risky venture.”

For Iran, Mr. Assad’s survival is a priority.

On Thursday, Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran’s foreign policy czar, reiterated his country’s support for the Syrian government during a visit to eastern Ghouta, which contains Douma.

“We will stand by Syria’s government against any foreign aggression,” he said, adding that no American strikes would affect the presence of Iranian troops, nor their efforts to build proxy militias in Syria.

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Buses carrying rebel fighters and their families from their former rebel bastion of Douma, pictured on Friday at a checkpoint near the northern Syrian town of Al Bab.

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Nazeer Al-Khatib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Iran and Syria have never been as powerful as they are today,” Mr. Velayati said. “Those who will remain will be the true owners of Syria, and those who will be destroyed are the Americans and the violators.”

The Israeli government expressed some satisfaction with the American attack on Syria. “Last year, President Trump made it clear that the use of chemical weapons crosses a red line. Tonight, under American leadership, the United States, France and the United Kingdom acted accordingly,” a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry said on Saturday morning.

The attack came amid heightened tensions over Israeli opposition to Iran’s growing presence in neighboring Syria, and the overnight strikes appeared to do little to assuage Israeli concerns.

In a not-so-veiled threat to the Assad government, the Foreign Ministry statement added: “Syria continues to perpetrate murderous acts and to serve as a base for those and other operations, including those of Iran, which place its territory, its forces and its leadership in danger.”

Mr. Trump made it clear when announcing the strikes that he does not consider it the job of the United States to fix problems in the Middle East.

“No amount of American blood or treasure can produce lasting peace and security in the Middle East,” he said. “It’s a troubled place. We will try to make it better, but it is a troubled place.”

He did, however, speak of working closely with American allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Qatar to ensure that Iran did not capitalize on the defeat of the Islamic State.

“These strategic messages are more damaging to the regime than the strikes themselves,” said Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

Still, such an international coalition would be starting years behind what Russia and Iran have already done, and some of the Arab allies Mr. Trump mentioned are not even speaking to each other. Mr. Trump has so far shown little penchant for the kind of strategic alliance-building it would take to change the direction of the war.

Some Syrians, however, took solace in the sight of smoke rising from Mr. Assad’s military bases.

“For many Syrians, the fact that their butcher was punished is incredibly cathartic,” Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which opposes the government, wrote on Twitter. “But war continues.”

Still, the strikes were unlikely to make much difference to the people of Douma, nor to the millions of other Syrians who have been killed, wounded or displaced by Mr. Assad’s forces.

After Douma’s rebels surrendered, residents had to decide whether to stay in their homes under a government that had bombed them or be bused to a part of the country hundreds of miles away.

No American action would keep them in their homes, they said, or restore a part of what they had lost.

“We have heard the threats, but the response will come after the people of the town have been forced to leave their homes,” said a medic from Douma who declined to give his full name because of his fears. “There was lots of talk, but until now nothing has happened.”

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Trump Orders Strikes on Syria Over Suspected Chemical Weapons Attack


A fact-finding mission from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was to begin investigating the incident on Saturday in Douma, which had been held by rebels before the suspected attack. The mission’s job was only to determine whether chemical weapons had been used, not who had used them.

Medical and rescue groups have reported that the Syrian military dropped bombs that released chemical substances during an offensive to take the town. A New York Times review of videos of the attack’s aftermath, and interviews with residents and medical workers, suggested that Syrian government helicopters dropped canisters giving off some sort of chemical compound that suffocated at least 43 people.

On Friday, American officials said they had intelligence implicating the Syrian government.

“We have a very high confidence that Syria was responsible,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary. She said Russia was “part of the problem” for failing to prevent the use of such weapons.

At the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, the American ambassador to the world body, accused the Syrian government of using banned chemical arms at least 50 times since the country’s civil war began in 2011. State Department officials said the United States was still trying to identify the chemical used on April 7.

President Emmanuel Macron of France on Thursday cited proof that the Syrian government had launched chlorine gas attacks. The same day, the British Cabinet authorized Prime Minister Theresa May to join the United States and France in planning strikes against Syria.

Leaders in Syria, Iran and Russia denied that government forces had used chemical weapons, and accused rescue workers and the rebels who had controlled Douma of fabricating the videos to win international sympathy.

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Victims of a suspected chemical attack in Douma, Syria, on Sunday. Residents said they heard objects falling from the sky, followed by a strange smell that witnesses said resembled chlorine.

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Emad Aldin/EPA, via Shutterstock

On Friday, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, said images of victims of the purported attack had been staged with “Britain’s direct involvement.” He provided no evidence.

Karen Pierce, Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations, called those allegations “bizarre” and “a blatant lie.”

In the immediate aftermath of the suspected attack, Mr. Trump called Mr. Assad an “animal,” warning the Syrian leader and his Russian and Iranian backers that they would have a “big price to pay.” That suggested the United States might take action against Syria’s patrons as well.

“If it’s Russia, if it’s Syria, if it’s Iran, if it’s all of them together, we’ll figure it out and we’ll know the answers quite soon,” Mr. Trump said early in the week. “So we’re looking at that very strongly and very seriously.”

Mr. Trump’s defense secretary, Jim Mattis, had sought to slow down the march to military action as allies compiled evidence of Mr. Assad’s role that would assure the world the strikes were warranted. Mr. Mattis also raised concerns that a concerted bombing campaign could escalate into a wider conflict between Russia, Iran and the West.

Before the strikes, the United States had mostly stopped aiding Syria’s rebels, like those who were in Douma, who want to topple Mr. Assad’s government. The Pentagon’s most recent efforts in Syria have focused on the fight against Islamic State militants in the country’s east, where it has partnered with a Kurdish-led militia to battle the jihadists.

It is the roughly 2,000 American troops there that Mr. Trump said he wants to bring home.

Russian forces and Iranian-backed militias also are deployed around Syria to help fight the rebellion — including the Islamic State and other extremist groups — that has surged against Mr. Assad since the conflict started more than seven years ago.

A previous American attack on Syria, last April, came after a chemical attack on the village of Khan Sheikhoun killed scores of people. Mr. Trump ordered a cruise missile strike against the Al Shayrat airfield in central Syria, where the attack had originated. The base was damaged but Syrian warplanes were again taking off from there a day later.

Still, the response set Mr. Trump apart from President Barack Obama, who declined to respond with military force after a chemical weapons attack in August 2013 killed hundreds of people near Damascus, even though Mr. Obama had earlier declared the use of such weapons a “red line.”

Mr. Obama ultimately backed off a military strike and reached an agreement with Russia to remove Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. That agreement was said to have been carried out, although a series of reported chemical attacks since have raised doubts about its effectiveness.

Both American presidents have sought to keep United States involvement in Syria focused on the battle against the Islamic State, and not on toppling Mr. Assad or protecting civilians from violence.

The question now for Mr. Trump is whether his intervention against Mr. Assad will make it harder to keep the United States from slipping deeper into the Syrian war.

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Weighing Syria Strike, U.S. Braces for Retaliation Beyond the Battlefield


The possible ramifications after a strike on Syria are among the concerns that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has raised this week during national security meetings. It remained unclear whether he had been satisfied by continued planning, but he slowed a decision that Mr. Trump had initially promised on Monday would come in 24 to 48 hours.

Mr. Mattis’s caution, however, did not mean that Mr. Trump would back off from a strike at some point. Given his Twitter messages vowing to fire missiles at Syria, administration officials said they were in a situation that made it politically difficult — if not impossible — to stand down.

A missile strike similar to one Mr. Trump ordered last year would be criticized as inadequate. Yet a more robust attack would increase the risk of a clash with Russia or Iran.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said all options remained on the table. She rejected Russian denials that Syria was behind the suspected chemical attack over the weekend in the Damascus suburb of Douma that the United States has blamed on the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

“We’re again confident that both Syria had responsibility in this chemical weapons attack, but we also hold Russia responsible for their failure to stop chemical weapons attacks from taking place,” she said.

Planning for a strike, in tandem with France and Britain, progressed as the United States pressed its indictment against Syria for using gas to kill civilians throughout the long-running civil war.

At the United Nations, the American ambassador, Nikki R. Haley, accused Syria of using banned chemical arms at least 50 times since the civil war began seven years ago, substantially higher than previous official estimates.

“Let’s be clear: Assad’s most recent use of poison gas against the people of Douma was not his first, second, third, or even 49th use of chemical weapons,” Ms. Haley said. “The United States estimates that Assad has used chemical weapons in the Syrian war at least 50 times. Public estimates are as high as 200.”

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Nikki R. Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, accused Syria of using banned chemical arms at least 50 times since the civil war began seven years ago.

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Hector Retamal/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The accusation came during a vitriolic exchange between Ms. Haley and the Russian ambassador to the United Nations at a Friday meeting of the Security Council. Using chemical weapons is a war crime and the Syrian government is not the only actor in the war that has been accused of doing so.

“Our president has not yet made a decision about possible action in Syria,” Ms. Haley told the council. “But should the United States and our allies decide to act in Syria, it will be in defense of a principle on which we all agree.”

The Russian ambassador, Vasily A. Nebenzya, accused the United States and its allies of reckless warmongering. Mr. Nebenzya said that there was no confirmed evidence that chemical weapons had been used in Douma and that the United States and its allies had “demonstrated they have no interest in an investigation.”

International chemical weapons inspectors have been sent to Syria to conduct an inquiry.

Mr. Trump’s threats of a strike on Mr. Assad’s forces, Mr. Nebenzya said, were “unworthy of a permanent member of the Security Council.”

Ms. Haley said she was incredulous at Mr. Nebenzya’s defense of the Syrian government and his overall portrayal of events. “I’m in awe of how you say what you say with a straight face,” she told him.

For all that, Russia loomed large in the discussions back in Washington about how to proceed. During an American military video conference call, several officials expressed concern about the possible Russian reaction to a strike on Syrian facilities, particularly in light of Moscow’s threats to shoot down incoming missiles.

During the call, military officials said that it was imperative to take steps to protect American naval destroyers from Russian counterattacks. The Donald Cook is in the Mediterranean and the Porter is heading to the region. Both destroyers could take part in a strike by launching Tomahawk cruise missiles.

But a potential online strike loomed as a possibility — and a way for Russia and Iran to sidestep a direct confrontation with the United States military.

Just weeks ago, the Department of Homeland Security identified Russia as the source of malware “implants” in the American electric grid and released samples of code to utilities to help them clean out their systems. The warning accused Russia of mounting a series of intrusions against American and European nuclear power plants and water and electric systems, in what analysts interpreted as a move to test Moscow’s capacity.

Iran hit American banks with a major denial of service attack nearly six years ago, and tried — unsuccessfully — to manipulate a dam in Westchester County, N.Y. Iran is among the most sophisticated midsize powers in using cyberweapons, skills that the country has invested in heavily since the United States and Israel conducted a crippling online attack on its nuclear enrichment sites.

As he has prepared the military for retaliation, Mr. Mattis has also warned of a potential propaganda counterattack by Syria, Russia and Iran after a Western strike. Defense Department officials have underscored the need to show the world convincing evidence that Mr. Assad’s government indeed initiated a chemical attack in Douma.

Russian troops and mercenaries are deployed to Syria; Iranian forces and militias are also in the country, and could retaliate against the thousands of American troops in Syria and Iraq. United States personnel in Erbil, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq, for instance, are readying for a potential Iranian attack on their forces there, according to an American official.

Syria has already moved some of its aircraft to a Russian base in hopes of deterring Americans from attacking there — and, in turn, igniting aggressions between the two Cold War powers.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said he was concerned that the military leadership was being too cautious. “I’m worried whether or not we have the right generals with the right mind-set,” he said on Fox News Radio.

“If our military leaders are listening to Putin and we back off because Putin threatens to retaliate, that is a disaster for us throughout the world,” he added. “You can’t let one dictator tell you what to do about another who has crossed two red lines.”

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