Sen. John McCain partially blamed President Donald Trump for a suspected poison gas attack in Syria over the weekend, saying his desire to “prematurely” withdraw U.S. troops from the country gave Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad confidence to strike civilians with chemical weapons.
“President Trump last week signaled to the world that the United States would prematurely withdraw from Syria,” the Arizona Republican said Sunday in a statement. “Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers have heard him, and emboldened by American inaction, Assad has reportedly launched another chemical attack against innocent men, women and children, this time in Douma.”
McCain, who has long argued the U.S. should do more to oust al-Assad, challenged Trump to repeat his response to a similar chemical attack in April 2017, when he ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base.
“The question now is whether he will do anything about it,” McCain said of Trump, calling for a strike on Syria to “demonstrate that Assad will pay a price for his war crimes.”
At least 40 people were killed and hundreds more injured Saturday in a suspected chemical attack that struck the town of Douma in the besieged Eastern Ghouta enclave near Damascus, according to rescuers and opposition groups. The attack came as Syrian government forces sought to finish off an eight-week offensive against Douma — the last stronghold the Jaish al-Islam group’s Islamist rebels controlled.
More than 1,700 people have been killed in the eastern Ghouta since February, when the Syrian army and allied Russian forces initiated a brutal assault to oust rebel fighters from the area. The fighting has caused a mass displacement of civilians as well: more than 130,000 Syrians have left eastern Ghouta through evacuation agreements between rebels and the government, according to the U.N.
Though it would not be the first time the Assad regime used chemical weapons against civilians, Saturday’s attack raised new questions for the future of the U.S. military intervention in Syria. Trump has been deeply skeptical of a long-term presence there, but influential voices inside and outside the government are calling on the president to change his mind.
Last week, Trump told his top advisers he wanted to maintain a focus on the core mission of defeating the remnants of the Islamic State, after which U.S. troops would come home within six months. Trump’s national security staff pushed back, arguing a long-term U.S. military presence in Syria is needed to prevent ISIS from reconstituting itself and block Iran’s ambitions in the region.
Most of the Washington foreign policy establishment and the national media agree, with editorials in The New York Times and The Washington Post arguing against an expedited withdrawal of the 2,000 American troops currently deployed to Syria.
Foreign governments are also pressuring Trump to deepen U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict. The U.S. should stay there for “at least the mid-term, if not the long-term,” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said, during a stateside tour last week.
Israel has also criticized Trump’s Syria policy, saying it has failed to stop Iran from infiltrating military assets in Syrian territory. Following Saturday’s attack, top Israeli officials called for direct U.S. military action against the Assad regime.