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News Brief: Chemical Attack Blamed On Syrian Government


President Trump made an ominous statement on Twitter over the weekend.


He said if President Obama had answered serious chemical attacks with a military strike back in 2013, Syria's Bashar al-Assad would be gone. This matters now because President Trump himself has to decide how to answer an alleged chemical attack, which came in a suburb of Damascus called Douma over the weekend. The main highway there in Douma at one point looked like something you'd see in an American suburb - auto dealerships and other retail stores. Now it has been targeted, reportedly, by the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Dozens of people were killed. Doctors and local activists say a chemical agent left the victims, including many children, foaming at the mouth. The U.N. Security Council is supposed to meet today to talk about how to respond.

INSKEEP: Let's start with the attack and then move on to the possible response. NPR's Ruth Sherlock joins us now. She's covering this story from Lebanon. Hi there, Ruth.


INSKEEP: What is the evidence that it was a chemical attack?

SHERLOCK: Well, there's been lots and lots of videos emerging from this area, showing people choking in hospitals, suffocating. There's also been a video showing bodies of people who seemed to have died from some kind of chemical agent in their homes. We reached Mouad Deyani (ph), a Syrian photographer in Douma. He's also pro-opposition activist. He says he went to a home where he found the bodies of men, women, children, babies who died in the chemical attack.

MOUAD DEYANI: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: He's saying he's a witness to what he calls the chemical barrels that dropped on Douma. He says, "I saw the victims. I saw them foaming at the mouth." Death tolls have varied. Doctors and pro-opposition rescue workers we've spoken to all seem to agree on the figure of 42 people who died from chemical - symptoms of a chemical agent.

INSKEEP: There's something you said there. You said chemical barrels dropped on Douma. That sounds significant because we've heard so much about barrel bombs, these rather simple, improvised bombs being shoved out of aircraft. I guess this person believes it would be a barrel bomb that had chemicals involved. Is that what may have happened here?

SHERLOCK: Well that's right. So there's videos of cylinders - videos of these sort of cylinders that some people say delivered the alleged chemical agent. I spoke to a man Eliot Higgins, who's a founder of website Bellingcat, who analyzes these types of videos. He says these cylinders are consistent with other videos that he's seen of past attacks where chlorine gas has been delivered. And the U.N. war crimes investigators have also documented 33 chemical attacks in the past in Syria. In these cases, Eliot Higgins told me, you know, these are delivered by helicopters. And the only side with airpower is the Syrian government and its allies. However, you know, this isn't a confirmation. At the moment, both sides blame each other for the attack. And both sides have very heavy interests in pushing their own lines on this. It's really going to take an investigation to be able to apportion responsibility.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should mention the shooting continues in Syria. What happened with this reported missile attack on a government airbase in Syria?

SHERLOCK: Well, overnight, a barrage of missiles hit this T-4 air base in Homs. There's unconfirmed reports of several dead. The Syrian regime initially blamed the United States. But the Pentagon says it's not conducting strikes in Syria at this time. Russia has now officially blamed Israel, saying that they fired eight missiles. The Israelis have conducted strikes in Syria, usually against targets connected to Hezbollah. That's the Iranian-backed group that operates there. Israel rarely confirms or comments on these strikes, but they did talk about, a few weeks ago, hitting the T-4 air base because they said that an Iranian drone had crossed into Israeli airspace and had been sent from there.

INSKEEP: OK. Ruth, thanks very much. Really appreciate it.

SHERLOCK: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock with our best information on what's happening in Syria.

MARTIN: Yeah. And the next question is, what is happening in the White House? In a series of tweets over the weekend, President Trump appeared to shift course on Syria. He has repeatedly talked about his desire to have a good relationship with Russia's Vladimir Putin. Now, though, he is criticizing Putin by name for supporting the Syrian regime. He wrote on Twitter, quote, "President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay."

INSKEEP: OK. Let's bring in NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what can you expect out of the White House here?

LIASSON: We don't know what to expect. We know what he did the last time there was an attack like this. Almost exactly one year ago, he did call for a limited strike on Syria. And whether he might do the exact same thing again is a question. We don't know whether or not it will have a deterrent effect. The first one didn't. Or he could support another country like France, who has also threatened unilateral action. Or he could do nothing.

INSKEEP: So all of this - all of these options come up in the days after the president has repeatedly and somewhat insistently said that the United States is ready to get out of Syria, that ISIS has been destroyed, that that was the major thing the U.S. was interested in. Is this a reversal of course?

LIASSON: We don't know yet. He has said that our involvement in Syria was coming to a rapid end. He said troops were going to be taken out of Syria, quote, "very soon." He does seem to have reluctantly agreed, at least in the very short term, to his military adviser's argument that the U.S. can't pull out its few thousand troops from Syria just yet. But you're now hearing from John McCain, who is saying that the president's public statement that he wants to withdraw might have given Assad a green light to make this kind of attack. McCain tweeted, POTUS's pledge to withdraw from Syria has only emboldened Assad to commit more war crimes in Syria.

INSKEEP: It is the very kind of statement that President Trump used to criticize - anything about timelines or saying you wanted to get out of a country with something that he had argued in the past as a very bad idea when President Obama did it.

LIASSON: Exactly.

INSKEEP: So what do you make of the president criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin in this case?

LIASSON: It's a big deal because it's the very first time that he's done something like this. This might mark the end of his very disciplined reluctance to exempt Putin from any criticism. He does seem to have gone out of his way to criticize him. In the tweet, he said Putin, Russia and Iran, as if Putin and Russia were two separate actors. And this does follow the administration's leveling of sanctions against Russian oligarchs. And the definition of Russian oligarchs are friends of Putin.

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks very much. Really appreciate it.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And we'll continue covering this story, of course. That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.


INSKEEP: For about a year now, the United States has said it wants to talk to North Korea. The U.S. just wants one thing - for the talks to be about North Korea giving up nuclear weapons.

MARTIN: Yeah. Now the U.S. says North Korea has agreed that can be the subject of talks with the U.S. This means preparations can continue for President Trump and Kim Jong Un to meet. If that happens, it would be the first time a sitting U.S. president has accepted an invitation to meet with a North Korean leader.

INSKEEP: Jonathan Cheng is The Wall Street Journal's bureau chief in Seoul, South Korea. He joins us now by Skype. Welcome to the program.


INSKEEP: I want to mention there have been warming periods and then cooling periods in relations before. Is this beginning to feel like there's real momentum for a change in relations between South Korea, North Korea and the United States?

CHENG: Well, certainly, it's a very dramatic shift from where we were just a few months ago. And look. Given what we were talking about then, this is certainly welcome. But whether this is any more than just another one part of this cycle remains to be seen. And I think it really does come down to this question that you've talked about, which is, what does denuclearization mean for North Korea, and what does it mean for the U.S.?

INSKEEP: Now, wait a minute. I just assumed denuclearization meant that North Korea would give up all its nuclear weapons. Are you saying there might be North Koreans who say, sure, we'll talk about denuclearization, but they mean something different?

CHENG: Well, the phrase that they like to use is called denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. And that's a very set phrase that they use, and it refers in part, say interlocutors who have spoken with the North Koreans in the past - it means very clearly the U.S. military presence, as well as their own nuclear weapons. And the U.S. has 28,500 troops in South Korea. And they do have nuclear-capable bombers and nuclear submarines and other assets that are regularly deployed to the region. And so for them, this is part of that definition, although we haven't gotten to the point of the discussion where these sorts of nuances have really been picked apart.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about another nuance of this. It's presumed that North Korea has and wants to keep nuclear weapons in order to safeguard the regime from any effort at regime change by someone like, say, the United States and that the United States would have to assure the security of the North Korean regime to get them to give up the nuclear weapons. As people discuss the possibilities here, does anybody see a formula by which North Korea's regime's security could be assured?

CHENG: Well, I think a lot of people would point to the nuclear weapons, say that is their security guarantee - and they themselves have said. Saddam Hussein had them. You know, Gadhafi had - you know, they gave up any, you know, sort of security that they may have sought from those nuclear weapons and instead saw the security guarantee with the U.S. And look how that ended. And so there are people who are skeptical that after having pointed very explicitly to these two examples, that they would then go and seek exactly what they're warning against - the security guarantee from the U.S.

INSKEEP: Mr. Cheng, thanks very much for the time. Really appreciate it. That's Jonathan Cheng of The Wall Street Journal, who joined us via Skype.


Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.