U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Friday that President Donald Trump is still weighing options in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria that Washington believes President Bashar al-Assad carried out.
“Our president has not yet made a decision about possible actions in Syria,” Haley told a meeting of the U.N. Security Council. “But should the United States and our allies decide to act in Syria, it will be in defense of a principle on which we all agree. It will be in defense of a bedrock international norm that benefits all nations.”
Haley told reporters on her way into the council session that she would be returning to Washington on Friday for more meetings on a potential response.
“I am unbelievably proud of how President Trump has looked at the information, analyzed, not let anyone rush him into this, because he has said from the beginning — we have to know when we’re right, we have to know all the information, we have to know that there’s proof and we have to know that we’re taking every precaution necessary should we take action,” she told reporters.
At least 40 people were killed and hundreds sickened in last week’s attack in Douma, in eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus.
“At some point, you have to do something,” Haley said. “At some point, you have to say enough.”
Syria has denied using chemical weapons, but Haley criticized the Syrian president for the repeated use of chlorine and sarin gas on civilians.
“Let’s be clear: Assad’s most recent use of poison gas against the people of Douma was not his first, second, third, or even 49th use of chemical weapons,” the U.N. ambassador said. “The United States estimates that Assad has used chemical weapons in the Syrian war at least 50 times. Public estimates are as high as 200.”
She chastised Russia for steadfastly protecting Assad from accountability with its Security Council veto and for not living up to its obligations in making sure Syria gave up all of its chemical weapons under a 2013 deal.
“Russia can complain all it wants about fake news, but no one is buying its lies and its cover-ups,” Haley said.
Russia called Friday’s Security Council meeting, the fourth day this week it has discussed Syria. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said his government has worked “robustly and fully” to de-escalate tensions in international relations. He said Moscow sponsored and supported the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) sending a fact-finding mission to Douma to investigate, but the U.S., Britain and France had rejected it.
“Thereby, these countries have demonstrated they have no interest in an investigation,” Nebenzia said. “The sole thing they have an interest in is to oust the Syrian government and, more broadly, to deter and contain the Russian Federation.”
A measure put forward by Moscow supporting an OPCW investigation, but not a mechanism to attribute blame for chemical attacks, failed to pass the Security Council on Tuesday, garnering support from six of the 15 council members.
OPCW inspectors have arrived in Syria and are scheduled to begin collecting samples Saturday in Douma.
The United States has been in close consultations with allies Britain and France on what response it should take.
French envoy Francois Delattre said Assad’s government had “reached a point of no return” with its most recent chemical weapons attack.
“This is a situation to which the world must provide robust, united and steadfast response and this is our responsibility,” Delattre told the council Friday.
He said France would “shoulder its responsibility to end an intolerable threat to our collective security,” and ensure respect for international law and Security Council resolutions.
“The use of chemical weapons cannot be allowed to go unchallenged,” said British Ambassador Karen Pierce. “The British Cabinet has agreed on the need to take action to alleviate humanitarian distress and to deter the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, and we will continue to work with our friends and allies to coordinate an international response to that end.”
As the international community waits to see if there will be a military response, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of the dangers of escalation.
“Increasing tensions and the inability to reach a compromise in the establishment of an accountability mechanism threaten to lead to a full-blown military escalation,” he said. “In my contacts with you — especially with the Permanent Members of the Security Council — I have been reiterating my deep concerns about the risks of the current impasse and stressed the need to avoid the situation spiraling out of control.”
Guterres added that the situation in Syria is now the “most serious threat to international peace and security.”