President Donald Trump on Sunday (overnight NZT) condemned a "mindless CHEMICAL attack" in Syria that killed women and children, called Syrian President Bashar Assad an "animal" and delivered a rare personal criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin for supporting the Damascus government.
As Washington worked to verify the claim by Syrian opposition activists and rescuers that poison gas was used, Trump said there would be a "big price to pay" for resorting to outlawed weapons of mass destruction.
A top White House aide, asked about the possibility of a US missile strike in response, said, "I wouldn't take anything off the table."
Just over a year ago, Trump ordered dozens of cruise missiles to be fired at a Syrian air base after declaring there was no doubt Assad had "choked out the lives of helpless" civilians in an attack that used banned gases.
White House advisers said at the time that images of hurt children helped spur the president to launch that air strike, and television new shows on Sunday aired similar depictions of suffering young Syrians.
"Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria," Trump tweeted.
"Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay. Open area immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!"
The attack took place in a rebel-held town near Damascus amid a resumed offensive by Syrian government forces after the collapse of a truce.
Syrian activists, rescuers and medics said a poison gas attack in Douma killed at least 40 people, with families found suffocated in their houses and shelters. The reports could not immediately be independently verified.
The developments come as Trump has moved to dramatically scale back US goals in Syria, pushing for a quick military withdrawal despite resistance from many of his national security advisers.
The critical talks have been overshadowed by controversial comments from the White House.
Source: 1 NEWS
Trump has given no formal order to pull out the 2,000 US troops in Syria or offered a public timetable other than to say the US will withdraw as soon as the remaining ISIS fighters can be vanquished.
But Trump has signaled to his advisers that, ideally, he wants all troops out within six months.
Images released by the Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets, a volunteer organisation, show children lying on the ground motionless and foaming at the mouth.
The Assad government, in a statement posted on the state-run news agency SANA, denied responsibility.
Trump was briefed about the attack by his chief of staff, John Kelly, officials said. Trump's homeland security adviser, Thomas Bossert, noted the timing of the suspected chemical attack — almost a year to the day of the US missile strikes.
"This isn't just the United States. This is one of those issues on which every nation, all peoples, have all agreed and have agreed since World War II, it's an unacceptable practice," Bossert said.
Asked about the potential for an American missile strike in response, Bossert said: "I wouldn't take anything off the table. These are horrible photos. We're looking into the attack at this point."
Trump was to meet with his senior military leadership on Monday, the same day his new national security adviser, John Bolton, assumes his post. Bolton has previously advocated significant airstrikes against Syria.