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President may use military action to punish Syria for this week’s chemical attack

Dozens of people, including at least ten children, have been killed and more than 200 injured in a suspected chemical attack in northern Syria, multiple activist groups claim. (Credit: Syria Civil Defense)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Donald Trump has told some members of Congress that he is considering military action in Syria in retaliation for this week’s chemical attack, and recognizes the seriousness of the situation, a source familiar with the calls tells CNN.

The source said the President had not firmly decided to go ahead with it but said he was discussing possible actions with Defense Secretary James Mattis.

Trump is relying on the judgment of Mattis, according to the source.

US officials tell CNN the Pentagon has long-standing options to strike Syria’s chemical weapons capability and has presented those options to the administration.

The sources stressed a decision has not been made.

Trump on Wednesday called the chemical attack that killed more than 70 people in Syria as a “heinous” act that had changed his views on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“Yesterday’s chemical attack, a chemical attack that was so horrific in Syria against innocent people, including women, small children and even beautiful little babies, their deaths were an affront to humanity,” Trump said, speaking in the Rose Garden alongside Jordan’s King Abdullah.

“These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this horrific attack and all other horrific attacks, for that matter.”

Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham issued a joint statement Thursday calling for military action, recommending an international coalition “to ground Assad’s air force.”

“We agree with the President that Assad has crossed a line with his latest use of chemical weapons. The message from the United States must be that this will not stand. We must show that no foreign power can or will protect Assad now. He must pay a punitive cost for this horrific attack,” they said.

They added: “In addition to other measures, the United States should lead an international coalition to ground Assad’s air force. This capability provides Assad a strategic advantage in his brutal slaughter of innocent civilians, both through the use of chemical weapons as well as barrel bombs, which kill far more men, women and children on a daily basis … Ultimately, the grounding of Assad’s air force can and should be part of a new comprehensive strategy to end the conflict in Syria.”

Congressman Adam Smith (D-Washington), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, told “Q13 News This Morning” that he is not convinced military action is the best path.

“The only reason I hesitate on military action is because of the lessons that we’ve learned in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya,” he said. “Simply militarily taking out a leader with nothing to replace it also leaves people facing endless violence. What we need to do is we need to build support among Syrian opposition groups to Assad and support them strongly.”

Earlier this week, the Trump administration had offered a pessimistic view on Assad’s fate in Syria, citing political realities there as a reason the brutal dictator isn’t likely to leave anytime soon.

“There is not a fundamental option of regime change, as there has been in the past,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday.

The lack of options in Syria isn’t a new conundrum — President Barack Obama often cited the country’s civil war as the predicament that haunted him most. The Trump administration has mustered the display of outrage that many world partners were seeking, including convening an emergency session at the United Nations Security Council, chaired by US Ambassador Nikki Haley.

But the White House’s frank admission that Assad would remain in power in Damascus for the foreseeable future was a break from the past and a reflection that Trump plans to bring US foreign affairs in a new direction.

There are few US interests in Syria, and becoming engaged in military conflict there would undoubtedly mean American deaths. Four years after Obama failed to gain support from Congress for a strike on Assad’s positions, there remains little appetite for a broader scale American effort there. And Trump, whose transactional views of foreign policy are openly expressed, sees little reason for the US to become more engaged.

Rita Zawaideh, CEO of the Salaam Cultural Museum in Seattle, which leads medical humanitarian missions for Syrian refugees in Greece, Jordan, and inside Syria, said if the United States does nothing, it sends a message to those still inside Syria that the world has closed its eyes to their suffering.

“You hear this, and then nobody does anything? Obama, when he was in office said, ‘we won’t let it happen again,’ and then it did. Nobody stopped anything,” she said. “The only thing the Syrians think is that it’s the American people who are helping and who really care, but the government does not.”