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US President Donald Trump says there will be a "big price to pay" for a suspected chemical attack against a besieged rebel-held town in Syria where medical aid groups reported dozens of people were killed by poison gas.
The Syrian state denied government forces had launched any chemical attack and Russia, President Bashar al-Assad's most powerful ally, called the reports bogus.
A joint statement by the medical relief organisation Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) and the civil defence service, which operates in rebel-held areas, said 49 people had died in the attack late on Saturday in the town of Douma. Others put the toll even higher.
The United Nations Security Council is likely to meet on Monday afternoon over the chemical attack at the request of the United States and several other members, diplomats said.
Writing on Twitter, Mr Trump hit out at Russia and Iran for their support of Mr Assad's Government.
The Russian Foreign Ministry warned against any military action on the basis of "invented and fabricated excuses", saying this could lead to severe consequences.
One of Mr Trump's top homeland security advisers said the United States would not rule out launching another missile attack.
"I wouldn't take anything off the table," White House homeland security and counterterrorism adviser Thomas Bossert said in a television interview.
"We are looking into the attack at this point," he said, adding that the photos of the incident were "horrible".
In one video shared by activists, the lifeless bodies of about a dozen children, women and men, some of them with foam at the mouth, were seen.
"Douma city, April 7 … there is a strong smell here," a voice can be heard saying.
Reuters could not independently verify the reports.
There is every reason to believe that Israel was behind Monday's airstrike on a Syrian military base, and not the United States, as Syria at first claimed.
Syria's state-run news agency SANA reported an early morning missile attack on the Tiyas (T-4) air base at Homs, about 100 kilometres north-east of Damascus.
It immediately blamed "likely" US aggression — understandable given the US condemnation of a suspected chemical attack days before on a rebel enclave at Douma outside Damascus.
US President Donald Trump had even warned of a "big price to pay" for the chemical attack, which killed at least 49 people.
Officials in Washington were working to verify claims by non-government organisations and Syrian opposition activists that the Assad regime was behind the poison attack.
However, the Pentagon denied responsibility for attacking the T-4 base, despite striking similarities to another air strike a year ago, when the US targeted Syria's Shayrat military base — also in Homs province — after another chemical attack in Idlib.
Denying the US was behind the T-4 airstrike, the Pentagon said the US supported diplomatic efforts to hold those who use chemical weapons accountable.
Hours later Russia and Syria both said Israeli warplanes had launched the attack. An Israeli spokesperson offered no comment.
And indeed all the evidence for the airstrike points to Israel, which launched a similar bombing raid at Tiyas earlier this year.
In February Israel accused the Syrian regime of allowing Iran to operate the Tiyas base to supply advanced weaponry to Shiite militia groups in the region, including the Lebanese-based Hezbollah, which has long waged war against Israel.
It was from this same airbase that Israel says Iran launched a military drone that flew into Israeli airspace in mid-February.
Israeli warplanes shot the drone down and launched raids against Iranian drone installations at Tiyas.
But an Israeli F-16 fighter plane was in turn shot down by Syrian forces.
Whether or not Israel was behind the Tiyas airbase attack, the US is considering its own response in Syria.
Only last week Mr Trump said he wanted to bring home the 2,000 US troops still on the ground in Syria after the fight against Islamic State militants.But a senior White House official would not rule out another US missile attack, s
Russia's Ambassador to the United Nations says Moscow has warned the US of "grave repercussions" if it carries out an attack against Syrian government forces over reports of a deadly gas attack.
Speaking at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, Vassily Nebenzia reiterated Russia's claim that there was no chemical attack over the weekend in the town of Douma near the Syrian capital Damascus.
Medical workers and rebel fighters in the area have said around 50 people died in the rebel-held town when a helicopter dropped a container of poison gas.
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Washington would respond to the attack on Douma, a rebel-held town in Syria, regardless of whether the Council acted or not.
But Mr Nebenzia accused the US of moving the world towards a "dangerous threshold".
And he accused Britain, France and others of "blindly" following the US line on Syria, using "slander, insults, hawkish rhetoric, blackmail, sanctions and threats to use force against a sovereign state".
Mr Nebenzia said a fact-finding mission from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) should go to Damascus, and would be protected by Russian and Syrian soldiers.
"There was no chemical weapons attack," Mr Nebenzia said.
"Through the relevant channels we already conveyed to the US that armed force under a mendacious pretext against Syria where — at the request of the legitimate government of a country, Russian troops have been deployed — could lead to grave repercussions.
The OPCW has opened an investigation to determine what exactly happened in Douma.
"We have reached the moment when the world must see justice done," Ms Haley told the Council.
"History will record this as the moment when the Security Council either discharged its duty or demonstrated its utter and complete failure to protect the people of Syria.
"Either way, the
Fears of full-scale war are spreading on Twitter, in the wake of Donald Trump's taunts to Russia to "get ready" for missiles to be fired at its ally Syria.
Meanwhile, Britain has begun moving submarineswithin missile range of Syria, in readiness for a potential strike. And British Prime Minister Theresa May has called a cabinet meeting widely expected to result in the UK joining a military response against Syria.
The White House says President Trump has not set down any timetable for a military strike, and that all options remain on the table.
But what are Donald Trump's options, and what would happen next?
The easiest, most likely option for the US is to launch a short-term, symbolic air attack, as it did a year ago following a chemical weapons attack at Khan Sheikhoun that killed 90 people.
About 60 US Tomahawk missiles targeted the Shayrat airbase where the Syrian warplanes that dropped the chemicals had taken off.
It was the first direct US assault against the Syrian regime, and destroyed an airstrip, aircraft and fuelling stations. For a brief time there was speculation the US might enter the war on a bigger scale and change the war's direction.
But the impact of that strike was short lived. The damage was mostly confined to a single airbase. A year on, the Assad regime remains in power, in an even stronger position than before. Syrian forces have tightened their control over the country and ousted rebel fighters from key strangleholds.
There's no reason to believe another token strike this time would be any different.
With Russian forces continuing to prop up the Assad regime and Iranian-backed militias on the ground, it would take far more than a single barrage of US missiles to have any impact on the war.
A broader and more sustained assault would cause greater damage to the Assad regime by destroying key military and government infrastructure. It might finally force the regime to stop its sporadic chemical attacks on civilians in rebel held areas, albeit even as those areas shrink and rebel fighters are ousted.
But such a move risks bringing the US and Russia into direct warfare, which could lead to an escalation of the conflict outside Syria's borders.
And given the US reliance on Kurdish fighters, it would further inflame the conflict between Kurdish groups and Turkey, which has already sent troops into northern Syria to fight Kurdish forces.
"Any strike large enough to carry substantial costs for Assad risks undermining the only remaining semblance of state in Syria and creating more chaos," tweeted Emma Ashford, a research fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington.
"You'll solve 'chem' weapons attacks, but likely prolong civil war."
"Assad's actions are abhorrent, but there is no practical military option here unless you are willing to effectively collapse the Syrian state and re-escalate the civil war."
Without a doubt such a scenario would cause even greater bloodshed on the ground, where Syrian civilians have paid the highest price for the war. Those Syrians saved from gassing might simply die by other means. The loss of lives, homes, hospitals and schools would continue indefinitely.
A worst-case-scenario could see the war spill beyond Syria's borders and embroil many of the world's key military powers. Britain and France have indicated support for US air strikes. And with Russian and Iranian forces against them, it's not so far fetched to think an escalation in the war could be a precursor to world war three.
Previous world wars have been triggered by less. Throw Israel into the mix — in the wake of its recent air strikes on Iranian drones in Syria — and who knows what could happen.
Many question why the US doesn't simply assassinate Bashar al Assad. But even with the demise of the Islamic State group, there are enough jihadist and rebel groups still active in Syria to fill the gap.
Witness the aftermath of similar intervention in Libya, where the US and its allies succeeded in ousting the dictator Muammar Gaddafi, only to see an upsurge in jihadist violence, tribal fighting and ongoing political instability in the years since.
"The power vacuum that would follow the sudden removal of Assad could be worse than the current warfare, and nourish the already fertile conditions for violent extremist and paramilitary actors," wrote David Alpher, adjunct professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University.
"Assad shouldn't remain in power. He's been proving that for seven years. But my experience tells me his removal should be political and legal. That process must come from the Syrians themselves, not from the outside."
As paradoxical and heinous as it seems, the most likely way to end the bloodshed in Syria — at least in the short term — might well be for the rebel forces to cede control of opposition-held areas and effectively accept defeat.
But for many Syrians who've fought so long and lost so much — they'd surely die before contemplating such a possibility.
What a clusterfuck!
US, British and French forces have pounded chemical weapons sites in Syria with air strikes in response to an alleged poison gas attack that killed dozens in the rebel-held town of Douma last week.
In a televised address to the nation, US President Donald Trump said the three nations had "marshalled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality".
The strikes were the biggest intervention by Western powers against President Bashar al-Assad in the country's seven-year-old civil war, which has pitted the US and its allies against Russia.
The Pentagon said the strikes targeted a research centre in greater Damascus and a chemical weapons storage facility and a command post west of Homs.
Russia's Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov said in a statement that Russia had warned that "such actions will not be left without consequences".
US Defence Secretary James Mattis said the strikes were a "one-time shot" to send a clear message to Assad and his "murderous lieutenants".
"Clearly the Assad regime did not get the message last year," Mr Mattis said.
"We did everything we could in our intelligence assessment and our planning to minimise to the maximum degree … any chance of civilian casualties."
He said the US did not co-ordinate with Russia on the strike nor did it pre-notify the Russians.
"We specifically identified these targets to mitigate the risk of Russian forces being involved," Mr Mattis said.
Mr Trump said the strikes were in response to the "evil and the despicable" chemical attack on April 7 which "left mothers and fathers, infants and children, thrashing in pain and gasping for air".
"These are not the actions of a man, they are crimes of a monster," Mr Trump said, referring to Mr Assad.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said the strikes were not about intervening in a civil war nor were they about a regime change.
"We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised within Syria, on the streets of the UK or anywhere else in our world," Ms May said, referencing the recent nerve gas attack on a Russian double agent in England.
"It is a limited and targeted strike that does not further escalate tensions in the region and that does everything possible to prevent civilian casualties," she said.
French President Emmanuel Macron said "red line has been crossed".
"We cannot tolerate the trivialisation of the use of chemical weapons, which is an immediate danger for the Syrian people and for our collective security," Mr Macron said.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Australia supported the strikes, which demonstrated a "calibrated, proportionate and targeted response".
"The use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances is illegal and utterly reprehensible," Mr Turnbull said.
"The Assad regime must not be allowed to commit such crimes with impunity."
Syrian state TV said Syrian air defences shot down 13 missiles on Saturday morning.
Several explosions were heard in the capital of Damascus.
The UK's Defence Ministry said four Royal Air Force Tornado jets fired Storm Shadow missiles at a former missile base near the city of Homs.
In a statement, the ministry said it believed the base was where the Assad regime was keeping "chemical weapon precursors" stockpiled in breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
It said the targeted base was located "some distance" from "any known concentrations" of civilians.
The US-led missile strikes in Syria appear to have been carefully calculated to minimise any further escalation in the Syrian war, while going as far as possible to prevent any further chemical attacks on civilians.
Whether they have gone far enough remains to be seen.
Significantly, the US and its allies have confined their operation to Syrian military infrastructure, and explicitly avoided the possibility of Russian or Iranian casualties.
The missiles targeted three separate facilities linked to Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, including a research facility in Damascus, a chemical weapons storage facility in Homs — allegedly used to prepare the nerve agent sarin gas — and another nearby command post.
Britain says one of the targets was a former missile base, just west of Homs, where the Syrian regime was believed to have kept "chemical weapon precursors stockpiled in breach of [its] obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention."
Certainly, the latest strikes have done more damage than a similar operation 12 months ago, when 59 US Tomahawk missiles targeted a military base at Shayrat, in central Syria.
Those strikes destroyed an airstrip, aircraft and fuel stations, and were retaliation for another chemical gas attack at Khan Sheikhoun, that killed around 90 people, an attack the United Nations later officially blamed on Syrian forces.
For all its firepower, the missile attack may again amount to just a warning — albeit stronger than last year's — that further chemical weapons attacks will incur similar retaliatory strikes.
President Donald Trump says Washington is prepared to "sustain pressure" on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad until he ends a criminal pattern of killing his own people with chemical weapons.
Those comments raised immediate questions as to whether the military operation would extend beyond an initial round of missile strikes.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis has since offered clarification, saying the strikes were a "one-time shot." But he also has not ruled out further attacks.
That depends now on the response from Syria, and its allies Russia and Iran.
Clearly, a limited strike by the US and its allies offers the best chance of limiting any retaliation.