NEW YORK — A ghastly chemical attack pushed the Syrian civil war toward a dramatic turning point, with the new U.S. administration launching a missile strike against the regime of Bashar Assad in a sudden shift in policy.
American warships launched dozens of rockets at military targets after a nerve-gas attack that killed scores of civilians including children, U.S. officials said late Thursday.
The strike came hours after the new Trump administration signalled a reversal of policy with respect to Assad: that the Syrian leader had lost the legitimacy to govern, he had to go, and an international coalition was being assembled to oust him.
President Donald Trump explained why he ordered the military strikes in a statement that did not elaborate on his longer-term political objective for Syria.
“Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children,” President Donald Trump said from his Florida residence.
“It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”
Speaking earlier Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered little hint about Canada’s role in any effort to remove the Syrian strongman. Yet he expressed horror over this week’s attack, which killed more than 80 people.
“This is a war crime and the international community must stand firmly against such things,” Trudeau said Thursday after a day of meetings in New York.
“We condemn in the strongest of terms (these) heinous against civilians, children, by chemical weapons.”
He promised Canada would be involved in the United Nations process to investigate and punish the perpetrators of the chemical attack that killed civilians, as seen in grotesque images that have shocked the world.
The Trump administration was already assigning blame.
After repeatedly expressing disinterest in removing Assad, and frequently declaring that America’s sole interest in Syria was defeating terrorist groups, not toppling its oppressive government, Trump’s team signalled its course correction earlier Thursday.
Trump’s secretary of state went further.
Rex Tillerson said a coalition-building effort has already begun, with the aim of ousting Assad. He did not specify whether the effort would be primarily diplomatic, military, or both — but he made clear it’s underway.
“There would be no role for (Assad) to govern the Syrian people,” Tillerson said, reversing his own statements of a few days earlier.
Asked whether he was organizing an international coalition, he replied: “Those steps are underway.”
That was an apparent flip-flop from his statement a few days earlier that Assad’s fate was up to the Syrian people. That was before gas was dropped on the city of Khan Sheikhoun, one of the few remaining rebel strongholds.
Some of Tillerson’s critics blamed his laissez-faire statement for emboldening Assad. Yet the Trump administration also blamed past president Barack Obama, who famously declared chemical weapons a red line not to be crossed — then backed down.
It’s unclear whether something else has changed since Obama’s presidency: Russia’s role.
The Kremlin convinced the U.S. in 2013 not to attack, on the promise that it could collect the Syrian chemical arsenal. It has continued to support him, consistently holding off international efforts at regime-change.
That may be eroding — perhaps.
The Kremlin is still sending mixed messages. On the one hand, the Russian government says its support for Assad is “not unconditional.” On the other hand, a spokesman says he’s Syria’s legitimate leader; also, Russia Today reports that President Vladimir Putin has said it would be unacceptable to make “groundless” accusations about Assad’s role, without proof.
Trudeau was asked whether he doubted this was Assad’s work — he didn’t reply directly; he said simply that it’s important to have all the facts before moving ahead.
The prime minister was in New York on Thursday for meetings with YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and Antonio Guterres, the new secretary general of the United Nations. He also participated in two roundtable discussions and a public interview with media executive Tina Brown.
The backdrop of his visit: the annual Women In The World Summit. At one discussion with female business leaders, he touted the idea of getting more women into corporate boardrooms.
“It’s not just about doing the right thing around equality and pay equity, it’s about understanding that that actually is the smart thing to do. . . . It leads to better outcomes,” he said.
It’s the prime minister’s fourth U.S. visit of 2017. He’s recently visited the White House, attended an energy conference in Houston and took in a Canadian-themed Broadway play in the company of dignitaries including Trump’s daughter Ivanka.