As President Trump prepared to meet with his national security team Thursday afternoon, a senior administration official said the U.S. was “confident” that Syria used chemical weapons in an attack last week on civilians in a rebel-held town on the outskirts of Damascus.
French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, said he has “proof” chemical weapons were used and said he would decide “in due course” whether to respond with air strikes, the BBC reported.
British Prime Minister Theresa May has declared the U.K. is willing to join military action against Syria, even without the consent of Parliament.
U.S. officials said urine and blood samples from victims of the attack have tested positive for chlorine and a nerve agent.
Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., a retired Air Force colonel who flew combat missions in Iraq, laid out the options for the U.S. in an interview Thursday with Fox News.
“The options would be, with our allies, strategically hitting military targets in Syria to diminish their capabilities to do this again and also to send a strong message to Assad that these will not go unanswered,” she said.
The congresswoman also said the U.S. wants to send “a message to Russia that we’re not going to sit by while they continue to obstruct the diplomatic process and engage in chemical weapons themselves in London.”
She said the targets will be “very tight,” doing everything possible to limit collateral damage.
Along with Russia, Iran has played a significant role in the Syrian civil war through its proxy terrorist organization Hezbollah, which has deployed fighters who have helped the regime regain control of rebel-held areas.
President Trump said Thursday an attack on Syria could take place “very soon or not so soon at all.”
He insisted he had never signaled the timing of retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack.
Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters the president has not yet decided whether military force would be part of a U.S. response in Syria.
He said, however, a military strike would be justified as an act of self-defense and the president has the authority to order one.
The president’s National Security Council was scheduled to meet Thursday to “take forward the various options” for Trump, Mattis said.
McSally said the U.S. needs “to do all we can to make sure it doesn’t escalate and to make sure Putin knows, ‘Do not get involved, you are a problem in this situation, and do not escalate this … environment that you have helped to create.”
Russia preparing for strike
Satellite images show Russia has moved at least 11 navy ships deployed in Syria out to sea in the event of a U.S. military strike. The Syrian army also is evacuating military bases and transferring aircraft to bases with strong Russian support while a U.S. guided missile destroyer, the U.S.S. Donald Cook, positions itself the coast of Syria with 75 Tomahawk missiles on board.
The ship has 20 surface-to-air missiles ready in the case of any confrontation with Russian war planes. In addition, the French navy ship Aquitaine is in position with 16 cruise missiles.
Also, in a deployment scheduled before the latest escalation, the U.S.S. Harry Truman strike group left Norfolk, Virginia, Wednesday morning on its way to the Mediterranean and is expected to arrive in one week.
Trump replied early Wednesday to a Russian threat to shoot down any U.S. missiles in Syria with a tweet: “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!'”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded to Trump’s tweet Wednesday, according to a translation by the state-run Tass media: “Smart missiles should fly towards terrorists, not the legitimate government which has been fighting against international terrorism in its territory for several years.”
At the White House Wednesday afternoon, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders noted Russia had promised not to allow Syria to carry out any more chemical weapons attacks. Trump responded last year to an alleged Assad chemical attack with the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles on a Syrian airbase. And she pointed to Moscow’s veto of six United Nations resolutions to curb Syrian aggression.
“Both of those things lie at Russia’s feet in terms of responsibility in this process,” she said.
Asked if Russia has firmly established itself as an enemy of America, Sanders said, “We certainly think they’ve proven to be a bad actor, and we hope that that will change.”
Pressing further, the White House spokeswoman was asked: “Are they an enemy of America at this point?”
“That’s something that Russia needs to play a role in determining,” Sanders replied. “We hope that they will not continue to be a bad actor and make changes in their behavior.”
A Russian military official insisted Wednesday the Syrian government had nothing to do with the attack, acknowledging chemical weapons were used. He contradicted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who has insisted there was no evidence of chemical weapons being used. Syria also denies chemical weapons were deployed.
The World Health Organization said in a statement Wednesday that after the attack, about 500 people were treated at medical facilities exhibiting symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals. The symptoms included respiratory failure, severe irritation of mucous membranes and disruption to the central nervous system, CNN reported.
WHO said more than 70 people who took shelter in basements died in the attack, and 43 of those deaths were related to exposure to toxic chemicals.