The White House said Tuesday that a suspected chemical attack by the Syrian government against civilians Tuesday "cannot be ignored by the civilized world," but it fell short of offering a plan of action.
Spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday's attack in Syria's rebel-held northern Idlib is "heinous" and "reprehensible"-- describing it as a catastrophe made worse by the inaction of the Obama administration.
Spicer said the White House has received a number of phone calls from European allies questioning how it would address the problem, pressing President Donald Trump's "America First" administration to take a bold position on this civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and prompted the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
"I'm not ready to talk about our next step but we'll talk about that soon," he said.
The attack Tuesday, in Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, is believed to have killed dozens of people, activists on the ground describing the attack as among the worst in the country's six-year civil war.
"These heinous actions by the Bashar Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration's weakness and irresolution," Spicer said. "President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a `red line' against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing."
President Barack Obama gave the Assad government an ultimatum that the use of chemical weapons in any circumstance would result in consequences. But those consequences never came -- the landscape growing more complicated by the rise of radical groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, and later, the Islamic State group. And while government-backed forces are blamed for launching unrelenting attacks on civilians opposing his rule, many warn that removing Assad now would only create a vacuum for those groups to overrun the country.
Spicer would not say whether the White House believes Russia played a role in the attack, saying simply that Trump has been briefed and is "extremely alarmed" by this "intolerable act."
U.S. Senator John McCain released the following statement:
"Just days after Secretary of State Tillerson said the Syrian people themselves would decide the future of their country, Syrian warplanes reportedly launched a chemical attack on an opposition-held town in northern Syria, killing at least 58 people, including 11 children. The initial strike was followed by rocket attacks on clinics treating the wounded.
"With President Obama's 'red line' far in the rear-view mirror, Assad believes he can commit war crimes with impunity. The question that confronts the United States now is whether we will take any action to disabuse him of this murderous notion.
"Aided and abetted by Putin's Russia, the Iranian regime, and its terrorist proxies, Assad will resort to any form of butchery he believes necessary to preserve his dictatorship, from chemical weapons to barrel bombs to torture chambers like Saydnaya prison. In case it was not already painfully obvious: the notion that the Syrian people would be able to decide the fate of Assad or the future of their country under these conditions is an absurd fiction. The recent statements by U.S. officials suggesting otherwise only serve to legitimize the actions of this war criminal in Damascus."