Trump says chemical attack in Syria crossed many lines

U.S. President Donald Trump accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government of going "beyond a red line" with a poison gas attack on civilians and said his attitude toward Syria and Assad had changed, but gave no indication of how he would respond.

Trump said the attack, which killed at least 70 people, many of them children, "crosses many, many lines", an allusion to his predecessor Barack Obama's threat to topple Assad with air strikes if he used such weapons. His accusations against Assad put him directly at odds with Moscow, the Syrian's president principal backer.

"I will tell you, what happened yesterday is unacceptable to me," Trump told reporters at a news conference with Jordan's King Abdullah on Wednesday.

"And I will tell you, it's already happened that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much," though when asked at an earlier meeting whether he was formulating a new policy on Syria, Trump said: "You'll see."

Vice President Mike Pence, when asked whether it was time to renew the call for Assad to be ousted and safe zones be established, told Fox News: "But let me be clear, all options are on the table," without elaborating.

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ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A man carries the body of a dead child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH People stand near a dead body, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
A man breathes through an oxygen mask as another one receives treatments, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
A man breathes through an oxygen mask, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH Men stand near dead bodies, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A Syrian child receives treatment at a hospital in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following an attack on April 4, 2017. A suspected chemical attack killed at least 58 civilians including several children in rebel-held northwestern Syria, a monitor said, with the opposition accusing the government and demanding a UN investigation. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
A man holds an injured baby inside a Turkish ambulance as injured Syrian people enter into Turkey from the Cilvegozu border gate in Hatay province, near the Syrian border on April 4, 2017. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on April 4, 2017 condemned a suspected chemical attack in northwestern Syria as an 'inhuman' strike that could endanger peace talks based in the Kazakh capital. / AFP PHOTO / DOGAN NEWS AGENCY / - / Turkey OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A wounded kid receives medical treatment at sahra hospital after Assad Regime forces's attack with chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Abdulghani Arian/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A woman gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A child gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A man carries the body of a dead child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A crater is seen at the site of an airstrike, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Turkish officials with chemical clothes carry a injured man on April 4, 2017 in Hatay province, near the Syrian border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on April 4, 2017 condemned a suspected chemical attack in northwestern Syria as an 'inhuman' strike that could endanger peace talks based in the Kazakh capital. / AFP PHOTO / DOGAN NEWS AGENCY / - / Turkey OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Bodies lie in the parking area of a hospital in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following a suspected toxic gas attack on April 4, 2017. A suspected chemical attack killed at least 58 civilians including several children in rebel-held northwestern Syria, a monitor said, with the opposition accusing the government and demanding a UN investigation. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A child gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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U.S. officials rejected Russia's assertion that Syrian rebels were to blame for the attack.

Trump's comments, which came just a few days after Washington said it was no longer focused on making Assad leave power, suggested a clash between the Kremlin and Trump's White House after initial signals of warmer ties. Trump did not mention Russia in his comments on Wednesday but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said it was time for Russia to think carefully about its support for Assad.

Pence said the time had come for Moscow to "keep the word that they made to see to the elimination of chemical weapons so that they no longer threaten the people in that country."

Western countries, including the United States, blamed Assad's armed forces for the worst chemical attack in Syria for more than four years.

U.S. intelligence officials, based on a preliminary assessment, said the deaths were most likely caused by sarin nerve gas dropped by Syrian aircraft on the town of Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday. A senior State Department official said Washington had not yet ascertained it was sarin.

Moscow offered an alternative explanation that would shield Assad: that the poison gas belonged to rebels and had leaked from an insurgent weapons depot hit by Syrian bombs.

A senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Russian explanation was not credible. "We don't believe it," the official said.

RELATED: The White Helmets of Syria

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Civil defence members carry a casualty after an airstrike at a field hospital in the rebel held area of al-Sukari district of Aleppo, Syria April 27, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail
Civil defense members search for survivors under the rubble at a site hit by airstrikes in the rebel-controlled town of Ariha in Idlib province, Syria July 13, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
Civil defence members rescue a girl from under the rubble after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel held al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria February 14, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail 
Members of the Civil Defence rescue children after what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo June 2, 2014. REUTERS/Sultan Kitaz 
Civil Defence members with blood on their shirts stand after double airstrikes on the rebel held Bab al-Nairab neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, August 27, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail
Omar Alwan, 21, a civil defence member, poses for a photograph in Idlib, Syria March 8, 2016. "Before the truce I wouldn't go out from the civil defence building because of my constant fear of the war planes. The first two days of the truce I had the same fear, but it began declining. I am expecting that the peace talks are serious this time," said Omar. "The war will not end in Syria until Bashar Al-Assad leaves." As peace talks are set to get under way in Geneva next week, residents in Syria from nurses to street vendors voice little optimism over the United Nations-backed negotiations' chance of success. The Geneva talks will coincide with the fifth anniversary of a conflict that began with protests against President Bashar al-Assad before descending into a multi-sided war that has drawn in foreign governments and allowed the growth of Islamic State. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi 
A Civil defence member looks for survivors at a site hit by what activists said were two barrel bombs dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo July 27, 2014. REUTERS/Hamid Khatib 
Civil defense members mourn the death of their comrade, who died during what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force, during his funeral in Ehsim town in the south of Idlib province, Syria, October 3, 2015. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
Civil defence members hold a demonstration to children during a war safety awareness class in Deraa Governorate, Syria March 5, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Faqir
A Civil Defence member reacts in a damaged site near the frame of a burnt vehicle after an airstrike on al-Jalaa street in the rebel held city of Idlib, Syria August 10, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
Residents and civil defense members look for survivors at a damaged site after what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Al-Shaar nighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria September 17, 2015. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail
Civil defence members search for survivors after an airstrike at a field hospital in the rebel held area of al-Sukari district of Aleppo, Syria April 27, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail
Smoke rises over a damaged site as Civil Defence members try to put out a fire after an airstrike on al-Jalaa street in the rebel held city of Idlib, Syria August 10, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
Civil defence members rest amid rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the rebel-held Tariq al-Bab neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria April 23, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail Y
 A civil defence member carries a dead child in a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force in the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan town in Idlib province, Syria January 9, 2016. At least 70 people died in what activists said where four vacuum bombs dropped by the Russian air force in the town of Maaret al-Numan; other air strikes where also carried out in the towns of Saraqib, Khan Sheikhoun and Maar Dabseh, in Idlib. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi 
Civilians, with the help of Civil Defence members, position sanitation pipes as barricades to provide protection from snipers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad who are stationed in Aleppo's historic citadel October 12, 2014. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail 
A civil defence member carries an injured girl at a site hit by airstrikes in the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan town in Idlib province, Syria June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi 
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COUNTER-RESOLUTION

The United States, Britain and France have proposed a draft U.N. Security Council resolution that would condemn the attack; the Russian Foreign Ministry called it "unacceptable" and said it was based on "fake information".

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow would press its case blaming the rebels and Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said Russia would veto the draft if Western nations went to a vote without further consultations, Interfax news agency reported.

Moscow has proposed its own draft, TASS news agency quoted a spokesman of Russia's U.N. mission, Fyodor Strzhizhovsky, as saying on Wednesday.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, issued what appeared to be a threat of unilateral action if Security Council members could not agree.

"When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action," she told the council, without elaborating.

Trump described the attack as "horrible" and "unspeakable." He faulted Obama for failing to carry through on his "red line" threat and when asked if he had responsibility to respond to the attack, said: "I now have responsibility".

The new incident means Trump is faced with same dilemma that faced his predecessor: whether to openly challenge Moscow and risk deep involvement in a Middle East war by seeking to punish Assad for using banned weapons, or compromise and accept the Syrian leader remaining in power at the risk of looking weak.

While some rebels hailed Trump's statement as an apparent shift in the U.S. position, others said it was too early to say whether the comments would result in a real change in policy.

Fares al-Bayoush, a Free Syrian Army commander, told Reuters: "Today's statement contains a serious difference from the previous statements, and we expect positivity ... from the American role.

Others who declined to be identified said they would wait and see.

Video uploaded to social media showed civilians sprawled on the ground, some in convulsions, others lifeless. Rescue workers hose down the limp bodies of small children, trying to wash away chemicals. People wail and pound on the chests of victims.

The charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said one of its hospitals in Syria had treated patients "with symptoms - dilated pupils, muscle spasms, involuntary defecation - consistent with exposure to neuro-toxic agents such as sarin". The World Health Organization also said the symptoms were consistent with exposure to a nerve agent.

"We're talking about war crimes," French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre told reporters in New York.

Labib Nahhas, chief of foreign relations at Ahrar al-Sham, one of the biggest rebel groups in western Syria, called the Russian statement factually wrong and one which contradicted witness accounts.

"This statement provides Assad with the required coverage and protection to continue his despicable slaughter of the Syrian people," Nahhas told Reuters.

The incident is the first time U.S. intelligence officials have accused Assad of using sarin since 2013, when hundreds of people died in an attack on a Damascus suburb. At that time, Washington said Assad had crossed a "red line" set by then-President Obama.

Obama threatened an air campaign to topple Assad but called it off at the last minute when the Syrian leader agreed to give up his chemical arsenal under a deal brokered by Moscow, a decision which Trump has long said proved Obama's weakness.

RELATED: Before and after photos of the war in Syria

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Visitors walk inside Aleppo's Umayyad mosque, Syria October 6, 2010. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Men walk near damage inside Aleppo's Umayyad mosque, Syria December 17, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A combination picture shows Aleppo's Umayyad mosque, Syria, before it was damaged on October 6, 2010 (top) and after it was damaged (bottom) December 17, 2016. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi (top)/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
People walk inside Aleppo's Umayyad mosque, Syria March 12, 2009. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Damage is seen inside Aleppo's Umayyad mosque, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A combination picture shows Aleppo's Umayyad mosque, Syria, before it was damaged on March 12, 2009 (top) and after it was damaged (bottom) December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A combination picture shows Shahba Mall, one of the largest commercial shopping centres in Syria, before it was damaged on December 12, 2009 (L) and after it was damaged (R) on October 16, 2014. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi (L)/Abdalrhman Ismail SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A woman carries an umbrella in al-Sheebani school, in the Old City of Aleppo, Syria May 14, 2008. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A general view shows damage in al-Sheebani school building, in the Old City of Aleppo, Syria December 17, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A combination picture shows al-Sheebani school's building, in the Old City of Aleppo, Syria before it was damaged on May 14, 2008 (top) and after it was damaged (bottom) December 17, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A damaged chandelier lies on the ground at Hamam El Nahasin, in the Old City of Aleppo, Syria December 17, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A combination picture shows Hamam El Nahasin, in the Old City of Aleppo, Syria before it was damaged on October 6, 2010 (top) and after it was damaged December 17, 2016. REUTERS/(Top)Khalil Ashawi/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
People attend a music concert in al-Sheebani school's courtyard, in the Old City of Aleppo, Syria June 6, 2009. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A general view shows damage in al-Sheebani school's courtyard, in the Old City of Aleppo, Syria December 17, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A combination picture shows al-Sheebani school's courtyard, in the Old City of Aleppo, Syria before it was damaged on June 6, 2009 (top) and after it was damaged December 17, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A general view shows the entrance to al-Zarab souk in the Old city of Aleppo, Syria November 24, 2008. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A general view shows damage on the entrance to al-Zarab souk in the Old city of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A combination picture shows the entrance to al-Zarab souk in the Old city of Aleppo, Syria November 24, 2008 (top) and after it was damaged December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
People walk inside Aleppo's Umayyad mosque, Syria March 12, 2009. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Men walk near damage inside Aleppo's Umayyad mosque, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A combination picture shows Aleppo's Umayyad mosque, Syria, before it was damaged on March 12, 2009 (top) and after it was damaged December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A general view shows the Old City of Aleppo, Syria November 24, 2008. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A general view shows damage in the Old City of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A combination picture shows the Old City of Aleppo, Syria on November 24, 2008 (top) and after it was damaged December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A combination picture shows Aleppo's historic citadel, in the Old City of Aleppo, Syria before it was damaged on August 9, 2010 (top) and after it was damaged December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Sandra Auger (top)/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "ALEPPO HERITAGE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
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SAME DILEMMA

The Western-drafted U.N. Security Council resolution condemns the attack and presses Syria to cooperate with international investigators. Russia has blocked seven resolutions to protect Assad's government, most recently in February.

Trump's response to a diplomatic confrontation with Moscow will be closely watched at home because of accusations by his political opponents that he is too supportive of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia intervened in the U.S. presidential election last year through computer hacking to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton. The FBI and two congressional committees are investigating whether figures from the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow, which the White House denies.

Trump's relationship with Russia has deteriorated since the presidential election campaign, when Trump praised Putin as a strong leader and vowed to improve relations between the two countries, including a more coordinated effort to defeat Islamic State in Syria.

But as Russia has grown more assertive, including interfering in European politics and deploying missiles in its western Kaliningrad region and a new ground-launched cruise missile near Volgograd in southern Russia - an apparent violation of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty - relations have cooled, U.S. officials have said.

The chemical attack in Idlib province, one of the last major strongholds of rebels, who have fought since 2011 to topple Assad, complicates diplomatic efforts to end a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven half of Syrians from their homes.

Over the past several months, Western countries, including the United States, had been quietly dropping their demands that Assad leave power in any deal to end the war, accepting that the rebels no longer had the capability to topple him by force.

The use of banned chemical weapons would make it harder for the international community to sign off on any peace deal that does not remove him. Britain and France on Wednesday renewed their call for Assad to leave power.

(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Polina Devitt in Moscow; Michelle Nichols at the United Nations and Lesley Wroughton and Steve Holland in Washington; writing by Peter Graff, Philippa Fletcher and Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall, Louise Ireland and Lisa Shumaker)

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