Trump Pulls Out of Peru Summit, Signals Imminent Action on Syria

President Donald Trump speaks in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, April 9, 2018, at the start of a meeting with military leaders. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Donald Trump speaks in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, April 9, 2018, at the start of a meeting with military leaders. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Donald Trump on Tuesday canceled a long-scheduled Latin America trip to focus on the crisis in Syria following a suspected chemical attack east of Damascus last weekend.

The White House announced that Vice President Mike Pence will attend the 8th Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru, beginning Friday in Trump's place.

"The president will remain in the United States to oversee the American response to Syria and to monitor developments around the world," White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

On Monday, Trump met at the White House with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the service chiefs to plan a possible military response to a suspected barrel bomb attack last Saturday on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma. The attack killed at least 40 and sickened more than 500, according to aid and monitoring groups.

Before the meeting, Trump said, "We have a lot of options militarily" and a decision will be made "shortly."

Last April, Trump oversaw the launch of 59 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles from two Navy guided-missile destroyers in response to a previous chemical attack in northern Syria. The U.S. warned Russian forces to keep clear of the area before the missiles were launched.

At least 80 reportedly were killed in the attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, allegedly with the nerve agent sarin.

Following the chemical attack, the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers Ross and Porter launched a total of 59 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs) against a Syrian airfield believed to have been the point or origin for the aircraft that carried out the attack.

The Tomahawk strikes were focused on the al-Shayrat Airfield, from which the U.S. charged that aircraft took off to hit Khan Sheikhoun.

On Sunday, Trump blamed the newest attack, allegedly carried out with chlorine and possibly a nerve agent, on the Russian-backed regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He also charged that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran shared responsibility.

Since the attack, Trump has spoken by phone several times with French President Emmanuel Macron to coordinate on potential military action. Both leaders said a "firm response" is under consideration.

French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said Tuesday that Macron and Trump agreed that their shared intelligence "in theory confirms the use of chemical weapons."

In an attempt to ward off U.S. action, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday that Moscow would submit a United Nations resolution calling for an investigation to determine whether chemical agents were used in the attack last weekend.

Lavrov, who has previously charged that the chemical attack claims were fabricated, said a "transparent and honest" investigation should take place with the involvement of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

If the resolution failed to pass, it would show the aggressive aims of those states that block it, he said.

"If, under the pretext of a lack of security guarantees, those who employ anti-Russian arguments to pursue their Russophobic aims do not allow experts to come, then it will be a verdict on their true plans and show that they have no interest in establishing the truth," Lavrov said.

The OPCW has authority only to determine whether chemical weapons have been used; it does not have authorization to determine responsibility for an attack.

It appeared Trump will make the decision on whether to attack Syria amid continuing turmoil on his national security team.

Shortly after the announcement of the cancellation of the Peru trip, the White House said Thomas Bossert, the White House Homeland Security adviser, had resigned.

"President Trump thanks him for his patriotic service and wishes him well," the White House said in a statement.

On ABC-TV's "This Week" program Sunday, Bossert said of the suspected chemical attack, "This is one of those issues on which every nation, all peoples, have all agreed and have agreed since World War II this is an unacceptable practice. I wouldn't take anything off the table" in terms of a U.S. response, he said.

Also on Tuesday, Russia, Syria and Iran renewed charges that Israel was responsible for an alleged F-15 airstrike on an airbase in southeastern Syria near Palmyra on Monday.

Iran's Tasnim news agency said seven Iranians were killed in the airstrike that left a total of at least 14 people dead.

Russian military personnel and members of the Lebanese Hezbollah militia are also believed to be stationed at the base. Israel has not acknowledged responsibility for the airstrike.

A joint statement released Sunday by the Syrian American Medical Society and other aid groups said that more than 42 people were found dead in their homes following the alleged chemical attack last Saturday.

In addition, "more than 500 cases -- the majority of whom are women and children -- were brought to local medical centers with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent," the statement said.

In a series of Tweets early Sunday, Trump said, "Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria.

"Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad," he said.

"Big price to pay," Trump said. "Open area immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!"

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.

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