U.S. President Donald Trump. (Photographer: Eric Thayer/Bloomberg)

Trump Reviews Syria Options as U.K. Cabinet Supports Response

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. and its allies edged toward punitive measures against Syria as President Donald Trump met with his national security team to discuss a response to an apparent chemical weapons attack by the country and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet said it is “vital” to react to the incident.

The timing of any action is uncertain. Before meeting his advisers on Thursday, Trump told reporters at the White House that “we’re looking very very seriously, very closely at that whole situation, and we’ll see what happens, folks, we’ll see what happens. It’s too bad that the world puts us in a position like that.”

In London, May’s cabinet gathered in an emergency session and afterward issued a statement saying that it “agreed on the need to take action to alleviate humanitarian distress and to deter the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.” That suggests May is prepared to join Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron if military strikes are launched against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Germany and Italy have said they will not take part in military action in Syria.

Tensions remained high in the Middle East as Western powers debated their next steps. Oil headed for the biggest weekly advance in more than eight months on speculation that conflict could lead to supply disruptions, reinforcing a buy call on commodities by Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Futures have gained 7.8 percent this week in New York.

Fact-Finding Mission

Experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are expected in Syria this weekend for a fact-finding mission to Douma, where the alleged April 7 chemical attack took place. Syria will allow the experts to go “wherever they want to go and at any time,” the country’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, said in a statement in New York on Thursday, according to state-run SANA news agency.

He dismissed British policy as “part of the problem,” adding: “We do not pay attention to what the British government might say because we already know that Britain is pushing for escalation.”

Syria’s state-run newspapers continued lashing out at the U.S. In an editorial, Al-Thawra likened Trump to a wrestler, who threatens to enter the ring one day and then withdraws. “He seems unaware that he may burn in the flames of his craving for wars and money,” the Damascus-based newspaper wrote.

U.S., U.K. Coordination

Trump and May spoke late Thursday and “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,” according to a statement from the U.K.

With U.S. ramping up its military presence alongside exploring diplomatic channels, “the hope is they will get the result of the strike without doing it,” said Sami Nader, head of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs in Beirut. “The outcome could be a return to talks about the departure of Assad.”

Earlier Thursday, Trump said on Twitter that a U.S. attack on Assad’s forces could come “very soon, or not so soon at all.” That tweet followed by about 24 hours another Twitter post in which he warned Russia to “get ready” for a missile attack on its ally to punish Assad for the presumed chemical weapons attack near Damascus, raising concerns about an imminent attack that could spark an uncontrolled confrontation between the two Cold War antagonists.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that his greatest fear from a potential strike on Syria is that the conflict would “escalate out of control, if you get my drift.” Russian, Turkish and Iranian forces are operating in Syria along with American forces combating Islamic State militants, risking a conflagration if a U.S. strike goes awry.

Mattis said that the U.S. aim in Syria is to defeat Islamic State, not “to engage in the civil war itself.” But referring to the use of chemical weapons, Mattis said that “some things are simply inexcusable, beyond the pale” and require a response.

President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s ally, has appealed for common sense, and his spokesman said that Russian and American armed forces were maintaining contact via a telephone hotline.

Unpredictable Outcome

“If these strikes start, it could end very tragically and it’s impossible to predict the outcome -- that’s the nature of military actions,” Frants Klintsevich, a Russian senator and a member of the upper house’s defense and security committee, said in a phone interview. Among the U.S. military top brass “there are no madmen -- these are professionals who aren’t populists and know what this could lead to.”

With the threat of a military response in the air, Macron said that there’s proof that Assad’s government again used chemical weapons. The allies are working to decide what response would be “useful and efficient,” Macron said in a television interview.

While German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the use of chemical weapons and cited “very strong evidence” that the Syrian regime has again deployed them, the country ruled out participating in any military action. At the same time, she made clear that Germany wouldn’t stand in the way of a response by its allies.

Germany should push for a special summit to formulate a joint EU position on Syria and plans for a peace initiative, Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of Munich Security Conference, said on Deutschlandfunk radio on Friday. Ischinger said the U.S. and Russia are “behaving irresponsibly. It’s alarming but it’s not a reason to panic.”

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