U.S. President Donald Trump says he will make "major decisions" on Syrian in the "next 24 to 48 hours" in response to a suspected chemical attack, as calls increased for an international response to the crisis and the UN Security Council gathered for an emergency meeting on April 9.
Speaking at the start of a White House meeting that included military leaders and his new national security adviser, John Bolton, Trump said Russian President Vladimir Putin “may” bear responsibility for the "heinous attack on innocent" Syrians in the rebel-held town of Douma, where at least 40 people were reportedly killed.
"If he does, it’s going to be very tough," Trump said. "Everybody’s going to pay a price. He will. Everybody will.”
"If it's Russia, if it's Syria, if it's Iran, if it's all of them together, we'll figure it out," Trump told reporters at the start of the meeting.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy on Syria, warned an emergency session of the UN Security Council on April 9 that the Syrian war has expanded beyond a national or regional crisis and is now a "threat to international security."
De Mistura said that is because of "conflicting interests of global and regional powers that can have devastating" and "unimaginable" consequences.
De Mistura also said Syria and Russia should allow independent international experts into Douma to "independently and urgently" investigate the allegations of a chemical attack there.
Vasily Nebenzya, the Russian ambassador to the UN, told the Security Council on April 9 that Britain and France were "blindly following" Washington in a deliberate attempt to stoke tensions with insults, hawkish rhetoric, and sanctions against Russia.
Nebenzya said the situation had "gone beyond the scope of what was acceptable even during the Cold War."
He also charged that all reports of a chemical attack on Douma were "lies."
The U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, responded by saying "Russia's hands are covered in the blood of Syrian children" and that Russia has no shame.
Haley repeatedly described Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a "monster" and said "no civilized government would have anything to do" with his regime.
But Russia, Haley said, has repeatedly allowed Assad to carry out "war crimes" against innocent civilians by vetoing any UN Security Council resolution that would hold the Syrian president accountable.
Meanwhile, Haley said, Russian "military advisors" are directing Assad's "starve and surrender campaign" against Syrian civilians.
"We are on the edge of a dangerous precipice," Haley said. "The great evil of chemical-weapons use that once unified the world in opposition is on the verge of becoming the new normal. The international community must not let this happen."
"We have reached the moment when the world must see justice done," Haley said. "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 United States will respond."
Earlier, the Kremlin said Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel during an April 9 telephone conversation that "provocation and speculation" on the matter was unacceptable.
Russia's military said Russian medical experts and chemical-warfare specialists who went into Douma on April 9 were unable to find any traces of toxic agents in the town or with patients at medical centers.
The experts were from the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria, a joint Turkish-Russian monitoring group.
However, a Turkish government spokesman said the allegations of a chemical attack in Douma must be investigated by international organizations -- not just Russian military specialists.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the global chemical-weapons watchdog, said on April 9 it has launched a fact-finding mission that has begun collecting information "from all available sources" about the alleged attack in Douma.
Trump said Syria, Russia, and Iran must allow the international inspectors into Douma to carry out an independent investigation.
Meanwhile, the UN's top human rights official, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, warned against what he called a "collective shrug" and "impotent" international response to the possible use of chemical weapons in Douma.
He said the world and veto-wielding UN Security Council members need to "wake up fast to the irreparable damage" being done to international efforts to ban the use of weapons of mass destruction.
The U.S. State Department said the symptoms of the victims of the alleged April 7 chemical-weapon attack on Douma were consistent with “an asphyxiation agent” and “a nerve agent of some type.”
The State Department said it has not been able to determine what kind of nerve agent was used, adding that Syrian government forces and its allies, Russia and Iran, are denying international monitors access to the city to investigate.
The State Department also said Washington was consulting with its allies on a response and that “there will be consequences for this unacceptable atrocity.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on April 9 that the United States not ruling out military air strikes against Syrian government forces.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said on April 9 that, if evidence confirms that Syrian government forces were responsible for a chemical attack on Douma, countries backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government should be held accountable along with the Syrian leader.
"This is about the actions -- the brutal actions -- of Assad and his regime, but it's also about the backers of that regime. And, of course, Russia is one of those backers," May said.
"This is a brutal regime that is attacking its own people, and we are very clear that it must be held to account, and its backers must be held to account, too," May said.
Earlier, Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron said they would coordinate "a strong, joint response" to the "horrific" attack. Germany said those behind the "abhorrent" attack should be held responsible, pointing to the Damascus government.
Speaking with his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, on the phone, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson "underlined the urgent need to investigate what had happened in Douma and to ensure a strong and robust international response," the Foreign Office said in a statement.
Syria, Russia, and Iran have accused Israel of staging an air strike on a Syrian military air base amid international outrage over the alleged chemical attack.
Syrian state media said several people were killed or injured in the strike on the Tayfur base, also known as T4, near the central city of Homs in the early hours of April 9. Israel, which has previously hit targets in Syria, did not immediately comment.
A Britain-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said at least 14 pro-government fighters were killed in the strike, including allied Iranian forces.
Iran said four members of its military were killed.
The Russian Defense Ministry said two Israeli F-15 war planes carried out the strikes on T4 from Lebanese airspace.
It said that Syrian air-defense systems shot down five of eight missiles fired and that no Russian military personnel were hurt.
Asked about the claims, an Israeli military spokesman said he had no immediate comment.
Israel has carried out air strikes on Syrian military sites and bases of Iranian-backed militias in Syria in the past.
In April 2017, the U.S. military fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syria’s Shayrat airfield in response to a sarin gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun. Syria denied it was responsible for the attack, which killed at least 80 people.
France has repeatedly warned that evidence of further use of chemical weapons in Syria was a "red line" that would prompt French military strikes.
"The use of chemical weapons is a war crime," Le Drian on April 8, adding that France will "do its duty" if the reported attack on Douma is verified.
In Berlin, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said “those responsible for the use of poison gas...must be held to account."
"With this use of poison gas, the circumstances point to Assad regime's responsibility," he said.