WASHINGTON • Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be preparing another chemical weapons attack, one that would result in the "mass murder" of civilians, the White House has said, warning that the regime would pay a "heavy price" if it went ahead with such an assault.
US military action on Syrian targets has intensified in recent weeks, with the US downing a piloted Syrian jet in Raqqa province on June 18. The US said the Syrian plane had dropped bombs near US-backed forces that are now fighting a war to purge Islamist militants from Raqqa.
The Pentagon also said last week that a US F-15 jet flying over Syrian territory had shot down an armed, Iranian-made drone that displayed hostile intent and advanced on coalition forces. But it declined to speculate on who was operating it.
In a statement from the office of press secretary Sean Spicer late on Monday, the US said it has identified "potential preparations" by the Syrian regime for the use of chemical weapons that appear similar to an April 4 attack on a rebel- held town.
The chemical attack on Khan Sheikhun in north-western Syria killed at least 87 people, including many children, and prompted President Donald Trump to order a cruise-missile strike against Syrian military targets on April 6.
The US assault with 59 Tomahawk missiles marked the first direct US attack on the Syrian regime and Mr Trump's most dramatic military action since he took office in January.
It also led to a quick downward spiral in ties between Washington and Moscow, which accused the US of breaking international law. Russia has supported the Syrian regime since 2015 with air strikes against what it says are Islamist extremists.
"The United States has identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime that would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children," Mr Spicer said in the statement. The two-paragraph communique did not offer any evidence justifying the sternly worded warning.
British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC yesterday morning that he would support US military action in case of a Syrian chemical attack.
Russia yesterday denounced the US warning. "We consider such threats against the Syrian leadership to be unacceptable," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.
Mr Assad, backed by Russia, has strongly denied the allegation that his forces used chemical weapons against the town in April, describing it as a "100 per cent fabrication".
He has said repeatedly that his forces turned over all chemical weapons stockpiles in 2013, under a deal brokered by Russia to avoid threatened US military action.
The agreement was later enshrined in a United Nations Security Council resolution.
But US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis previously warned that there was "no doubt" that Syria had, in fact, retained some chemical weapons. An Israeli military assessment also found that Mr Assad's regime was still in possession of "a few tonnes" of chemical weapons.
"As we have previously stated, the United States is in Syria to eliminate the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria," Mr Spicer added in his statement. "If, however, Mr Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG