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While Trump weighs military action in Syria after gas attack, Trudeau urges caution

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers a question during in the House of Commons in Ottawa on April 5, 2017.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Trump administration is examining military options to punish the Syrian regime for a deadly poison-gas attack and suggested that President Bashar al-Assad may have to leave power.

Facing his biggest international crisis since taking office in January, U.S. President Donald Trump has adopted a more strident tone toward Mr. al-Assad since Tuesday's attack, which killed more than 70 people, including children.

"What Assad did is terrible," Mr. Trump told reporters on Air Force One en route to Florida on Thursday for a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

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Asked whether Mr. al-Assad should remain in power, Mr. Trump responded, "I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity and he's there, and I guess he's running things, so something should happen."

Mr. Trump's comments on Mr. al-Assad were underscored by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who told reporters that there is "no role for him to govern the Syrian people."

The poison used in Tuesday's attack in Idlib province, a rebel-held part of northern Syria that borders Turkey, was the banned nerve agent sarin, the Turkish Health Ministry said in a statement Thursday.

In New York, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was appalled by the attack but urged multilateral action and a careful process to establish whom to hold accountable.

Canada is pushing the United Nations Security Council "to pass a strong resolution that allows the international community to determine first of all who was responsible for these attacks and how we will move forward," Mr. Trudeau said Thursday. "It is important to make sure we have all the facts."

The UN Security Council is grappling with passing a resolution condemning the attacks, a process made difficult by the veto power wielded by Russia, Mr. al-Assad's staunch ally. Mr. Trudeau met with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres Thursday afternoon and discussed with him the situation in Syria. The Prime Minister said he hoped that the Security Council would pass a resolution within days.

Mr. Tillerson said Thursday that there was "no doubt in our minds" the Assad regime was behind the brutal attacks and added that the United States was evaluating an appropriate response.

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Top defence leaders were discussing military options developed by the Pentagon with the President, U.S. officials told Associated Press. They commented only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to address the sensitive information publicly.

The range of options would likely echo those shelved at the last minute by the Obama administration in 2013 after a previous chemical-weapons attack by Syrian forces. Then, the United States was poised to launch missiles from ships in the Mediterranean, targeting military air fields, command and control facilities and other key locations.

A strike against Mr. al-Assad could put Mr. Trump on a collision course with Russia, which intervened on the Syrian President's side in 2015, turning the tide of the long-running conflict against mostly Sunni Muslim rebel groups in the regime's favour.

Until this week, Mr. Trump had focused his Syria policy almost exclusively on defeating Islamic State militants in northern Syria, where U.S. special forces are supporting Arab and Kurdish armed groups.

But that appeared to change as he viewed the horrific images from Tuesday's attacks. "When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, little babies, with a chemical gas … that crosses many, many lines," Mr. Trump said on Wednesday.

In Moscow, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin said Russia's support for Mr. al-Assad has limits, but there must be a full investigation of the attack before the UN takes any action.

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Turkey would welcome U.S. military action in Syria after the gas attack and would be ready to assist if needed, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying by a state-run news agency. Ankara has been a steadfast opponent of Mr. al-Assad and has repeatedly urged his ouster.

Mr. Trudeau counselled caution, saying there are "still questions to be answered around who is responsible" for the attacks. But "we do know that the Assad regime has been responsible in the past for chemical-weapons attacks against civilians." He added that countries that have supported the Syrian government "certainly need to think about their responsibility in the ongoing conflict," an apparent reference to Russia and Iran.

Mr. Trudeau's day-long visit to New York was focused on delivering a message of empowerment and inclusion for women. In addition to meeting with the UN Secretary-General, he sat down with women entrepreneurs and executives, held a roundtable on gender parity at the UN and spoke at the Women in the World Summit, an annual event organized by journalist and author Tina Brown.

The Prime Minister has made the advancement of women a cornerstone of his government. He has also used the issue as a way to build bridges with the Trump administration. The President's daughter, Ivanka Trump, is an outspoken advocate for women in business, and during the Prime Minister's visit to Washington in February, Mr. Trump and Mr. Trudeau announced the formation of a joint U.S.-Canada council to promote female entrepreneurs and executives.

Mr. Trudeau told an admiring audience at the women's summit in Manhattan that he believes his cabinet makes better decisions because it has an equal number of men and women. Having a gender-balanced cabinet produces "a level of depth of conversation and an approach to solving problems that quite frankly leads you to a much better place" he said.

With reports from Associated Press and Reuters

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