Israel Accused of Bombing Syrian Air Base After U.S. Denies Involvement

Syrian army soldiers gather on the outskirts of Douma on April 8, as they continue their fierce offensive to retake the last opposition holdout in Eastern Ghouta. Photo: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

Syria’s state-run news agency said the T-4 military airbase in Homs province was hit by “several missiles,” early Monday morning local time, days after an apparent chemical-weapon attack by Syrian government forces on a rebel-held area near Damascus. The report initially said this was “likely to be an American aggression,” but the reference to the U.S. was dropped after the Pentagon denied involvement.

“At this time, the Department of Defense is not conducting air strikes in Syria. However, we continue to closely watch the situation and support the ongoing diplomatic efforts to hold those who use chemical weapons, in Syria and otherwise, accountable,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

The Syrian Arab News Agency said President Bashar al-Assad’s forces shot down eight missiles, and the attack resulted in an unspecified number of casualties.

Hours earlier, President Trump tweeted that “Animal Assad” would have a “big price to pay” for Saturday’s chemical attack. It left at least 42 people dead, including women and children, and more than 500 injured.

There was immediate speculation that Israel, which has quietly attacked Assad’s forces and the Iranian-backed militias that support them many times, may be responsible for Monday’s air strikes. Russia, Syria’s ally, eventually accused Israel of conducting the strikes using two F-15 war planes firing from Lebanese air space. When asked about the attack, an Israeli spokesperson declined to comment.

While Trump said in recent days that he wants to pull U.S. forces out of Syria in a matter of months, the chemical attack may change those plans. The White House said that Trump discussed the situation with French president Emmanuel Macron earlier on Sunday, and they agreed to “coordinate a strong, joint response.” They said the Assad regime “must be held accountable for its continued human rights abuses.”

Members of the United Nations Security Council have called an emergency meeting for Monday to demand an investigation into the Syria attack and access to victims.

Russia called a separate meeting, also set for Monday, to discuss threats to international peace and security. Russia’s move is likely an attempt to deflect international condemnation of Syria. Assad has denied ever using chemical weapons in the seven-year civil war, and on Sunday Russia claimed reports about the chemical attack are “bogus” and “fabricated.”

It could take several days for intelligence analysts to determine exactly what happened, a source told The Wall Street Journal, and the U.S. will likely wait for those answers before deciding how to respond. Almost exactly one year ago, Trump ordered the launch of several dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base after a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun killed at least 85 people.

On Sunday several Republican lawmakers, who have long advocated for more intervention in Syria, accused Trump of emboldening Assad with talk of pulling out troops.

“They see our determination to stay in Syria waning, and it’s no accident that they used chemical weapons,” Senator Lindsey Graham said on ABC. “If it becomes a tweet without meaning, then he’s hurt himself with North Korea. If he doesn’t follow through and live up to that tweet, he’s going to look weak in the eyes of Russia and Iran.”

Senator John McCain, who is at home in Arizona recuperating from cancer treatments, released a statement criticizing Trump.

“President Trump last week signaled to the world that the United States would prematurely withdraw from Syria,” McCain said. “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.”

The Trump administration has been warning Assad for months that the further use of chemical weapons could lead to a military response. (There are credible reports that Assad has been regularly launching chemical attacks for years, but the latest attack drew international attention due to the use of chlorine and the high death toll.) Analysts tell the Journal that the military options before Trump likely include firing cruise missiles at the unit responsible for Saturday’s attack, launching a broader attack at Assad’s air force, or hitting the headquarters of the military leaders who oversaw the incident.

It’s unclear if Trump has started moving forward with plans for a strike, or if the chemical attack has changed his thinking on withdrawing troops from Syria. White House officials said they could offer no insights beyond what Trump said on Twitter.

This post has been updated throughout.

Israel Accused of Bombing Syrian Base After U.S. Denies Role