Amid a flurry of closed-door activity at the White House and the Pentagon, President Donald Trump signaled Thursday that a U.S. response possibly was imminent for the suspected chemical attack earlier this week against civilians in northwestern Syria.
"I don't want to say what I'm going to be doing with respect to Syria," Trump said aboard Air Force One on his way to Florida, but he singled out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for blame in the attack Tuesday on the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun in a rebel-held area of Idlib province that killed at least 70, according to human rights and aid groups.
"What Assad did is terrible. What happened in Syria is truly one of the egregious crimes and it shouldn't have happened and it shouldn't be allowed to happen," the president said. Referring to Assad, he added, "I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity, and he's there, and I guess he's running things, so I guess something should happen."
Trump was already being pressed by senior Republicans to take military action despite Russia's strong support for Assad and the presence in Syria of Russian troops and warplanes.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and member of the panel, said the U.S. and its partners should ground Assad's warplanes, though any attack on Syrian airfields would also risk hitting Russian aircraft and crews.
"The U.S. military, together with our allies and partners, has the capability to achieve this objective quickly, precisely, decisively, and in ways that control escalation," McCain said in a statement. He did not elaborate on the method of attack.
In 2013, following a sarin gas attack in the Damascus suburbs that allegedly killed more than 1,500, the U.S. posted destroyers and submarines to the eastern Mediterranean with the potential mission to fire Tomahawk missiles to crater Syrian airfields, but the attack order never came from the Obama administration.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that the White House was considering a range of military options but had made no decisions. Senior White House officials met Wednesday evening on the Syrian crisis and received input from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the White House national security advisor, the Post reported.
Tillerson was expected to meet in Moscow next week with Russian President Vladimir Putin on a previously arranged visit that will now have Syria high on the agenda.
The talks will come as Trump's high hopes, often expressed during the campaign, for a new and more cooperative relationship with Putin appeared to have been dashed by charges of Russian meddling in the U.S. 2016 elections and congressional investigations of possible collusion between Trump associates and Moscow.
U.S. troops on the ground in Syria have ready access to chemical weapons protective suits but were not wearing them as a precaution following the suspected Syrian air force nerve gas attack, a U.S. military spokesman said Thursday.
"All forces have access to chemical gear" in Syria and in Iraq, Army Col. Joseph Scrocca said in fielding questions on the impact for U.S. troops of Trump's statements suggesting that the U.S. might take action. "None of our forces currently are wearing them."
Scrocca, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, declined comment on the alleged Syrian attack or a possible U.S. response. He said U. S. troops in Syria and Iraq were focused on the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, but "our forces across Iraq and Syria are prepared to defend themselves" should they come under fire.
The Force Management Levels, or limits, on U.S. military personnel set by the Obama administration currently stand at 503 for Syria and 5,262 Iraq. However, those numbers do not include troops on so-called "temporary assignment."
Currently in Syria, a small contingent of Army Rangers and Stryker combat vehicles is in the northeastern town of Manbij temporarily to discourage any attempt to take the town by a combined Syrian and Russian force on the outskirts.
In addition, about 200 Marines from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, also on temporary assignment, are near the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa to set up an firing base for M777 howitzers.
In Iraq, about 200 troops from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division recently were sent to northeastern Iraq to support the train, advise and assist mission of U.S. troops with the Iraqi Security Forces battling to retake Mosul.
Both Syrian and Russian officials have denied responsibility for the chemical attack and charged that the deaths may have been caused by nerve agents stored in the area by rebels.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.