When it comes to trying to determine responsibility for last week’s deadly chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, United States defence secretary James Mattis expresses no doubt.
“The Assad regime planned it, orchestrated it and executed it. We have gone back through and looked at all the evidence we can, and it is very clear who planned this attack, who authorised this attack and who conducted this attack, itself. That we do know, with no doubt whatsoever.”
Turkey’s Health Ministry has conducted autopsies on three of the victims and says sarin gas was used.
General Mattis used his media briefing to insist US policy towards Syria has not changed and the priority remains trying to defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
But he was asked what prompted the United States to intervene when it had not acted in the past as barrel bombs were used in Syria to kill civilians.
“When you look at what happened with this chemical attack, we knew that we could not stand passive on this. But it was not a statement that we could enter full-fledged, full-bore into the most complex civil war probably raging on the planet at this time. So, the intent was to stop the cycle of violence into an area that, even in World War Two, chemical weapons were not used on battlefields.”
On the last point, General Mattis went further to explain the US intervention.
“Even in World War Two, chemical weapons were not used on battlefields. Even in the Korean War, they were not used on battlefields. Since World War One, there’s been an international convention on this. And to stand idly by when that convention is violated, that is what we had to take action on urgently in our own vital interest.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer tried to make the same point.
But he wound up entangled in a separate controversy.
“We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War Two. You know, you had someone who’s as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”
Questioned whether he was saying Adolf Hitler did not gas people to death, he then scrambled to clarify what he meant.
“I think, when you come to sarin gas, there was no … he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing. I mean, there was clearly … I understand … thanks … thank you, I appreciate that … there were not … he brought them into the Holocaust centres, I understand that … but I’m saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent (people) into the middle of towns. It was brought … so, the use of it … I appreciate the clarification there. That was not the intent.”
After the media briefing, Mr Spicer issued a further statement.
“In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust. I was trying to draw a distinction of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centres. Any attack on innocent people is reprehensible and inexcusable.”
Russia maintains history appears to be repeating itself.
President Vladimir Putin says the United States’ missile attack resembles its behaviour in 2003, when it invaded Iraq on the pretext of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction.
Mr Putin says he believes the United States intends to carry out chemical attacks in Syria and put the blame on Russia.
“Are new strikes possible or not? We have information from various sources that similar provocations — I cannot call it anything else — are being prepared for other Syrian regions, including the southern suburbs of Damascus, where there are plans to plant some substance and then blame Syrian authorities for using it.”
It is not only Mr Putin questioning the US motivations.
Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has been criticised for insisting the United States has yet to prove the Syrian government was responsible.
Ms Gabbard travelled to Damascus in January and met President Assad, saying she would meet anyone if there was a possibility it could achieve peace.
She says the United States is trying to overthrow him with what she calls a “regime-change war.”
“The fact is that the United States has been waging this war, this regime-change war, now for years, covertly through the CIA, to overthrow the Syrian government. The result of this has been the suffering of the Syrian people, hundreds of thousands of people dead, millions of refugees and the strengthening of terrorist groups in Syria like al-Qaeda and ISIS whose goal is to overthrow the Syrian government.”
US secretary of state Rex Tillerson is now in Moscow for talks after failing to get backing from the G7 industrialised nations to impose sanctions on Russia.