Western powers continued to weigh their options on Friday over possible strikes against Syria’s regime as pressure built to avoid an escalation following a warning from Russia that military action could lead to “war”.
The UN Security Council met again on Friday, at Russia’s request, to try to defuse the standoff, as United States President Donald Trump appeared to back away from imminent action, days after warning Russia to “get ready” for missile strikes.
After a crunch meeting with national security advisers on Thursday, the White House said he had not yet decided how to retaliate to last week’s suspected chemical attack which the US, France and Britain blame on Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
“No final decision has been made,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said, adding that Trump would confer with French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Later, a White House briefing on a call between Trump and May said that they “continued their discussion of the need for a joint response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons.”
A Downing Street spokesperson added: “They agreed it was vital that the use of chemical weapons did not go unchallenged, and on the need to deter the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.”
But US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis struck a cautious note, telling lawmakers that the need to “stop the murder of innocent people” had to be weighed up against the risk of things “escalating out of control”.
During his meeting with Trump and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joe Dunford, Mattis pushed for more evidence of the Assad regime’s culpability for the attack, to bolster the case for air strikes, The New York Times reported.
In France, Macron claimed in a TV interview he had “proof” that Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons and vowed a response “in due course”.
But he also appeared anxious to avoid a wider conflict, saying France would “in no way allow an escalation”.
Western officials believe chlorine was used in Saturday’s attack on Douma, the main city in the longtime rebel bastion of Eastern Ghouta, where the British government now estimates 75 people were killed.
What is less clear is whether sarin — the agent used in the chemical attack last April that prompted US missile strikes — or a similar agent was also used.
Russia, which has stonewalled diplomatic efforts at the UN Security Council, has vehemently denied a chemical attack took place and accused the West of seeking an excuse for military action.—AFP