US suspects Syria in new chemical attack, threatens reprisal

A damaged vehicle lies next to a crater cased by reported airstrikes by the Syrian regime ally Russia, in the town of Kafranbel in the rebel-held part of the Syrian Idlib province, on May 20, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States said Tuesday (May 21) it suspected that Syrian government forces have carried out a fresh chemical attack and it threatened reprisals.

The State Department said it was assessing indications that the regime used chemical weapons on Sunday during its offensive in Idlib, the most significant remaining holdout in Syria of jihadist rebels.

"We are still gathering information on this incident, but we repeat our warning that if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons, the United States and our allies will respond quickly and appropriately," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.

She also denounced Russia, the key ally of Damascus, for what she called a "disinformation campaign" as it tries to blame other parties for chemical attacks.

"The Assad regime's culpability in horrific chemical weapons attacks is undeniable," Ms Ortagus said.

Russia and Turkey, the key ally of the rebels, in September reached an agreement that nominally protects Idlib amid fears for the safety of some three million people in the northwestern area.

But Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, has seized a large part of the province and adjoining areas, triggering a regime offensive that includes strikes by Syrian and Russian airplanes.

Ms Ortagus said that the offensive has "destroyed known health facilities, schools, residences and internally displaced person camps." "The regime's attacks against the communities of northwest Syria must end," she said.

"The United States reiterates its warning, first issued by President (Donald) Trump in September 2018, that an attack against the Idlib de-escalation zone would be a reckless escalation that threatens to destabilize the region," she said.


The warning came despite a trip to Russia last week by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who voiced optimism that the rival powers had found ways to work together on Syria.

Some 180 civilians have been killed in the flare-up since April 30, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitor. The United Nations says that tens of thousands have fled their homes.

International inspectors say that Mr Assad's forces have carried out a series of chemical attacks in the course of the brutal civil war, which has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since 2011.

A sarin gas attack in April 2017 in the town of Khan Sheikhun killed 83 people, according to the United Nations, leading Mr Trump to order a strike by 59 cruise missiles on a Syrian air base.

His action was a reversal from his predecessor Barack Obama, who had declared chemical weapons to be a red line but controversially chose not to respond militarily and instead worked with Russia on a plan that aimed to remove the regime's chemical stockpile.

Mr Trump, however, is also skeptical of a commitment in Syria and last year ordered the withdrawal of all 2,000 US troops, although aides later said a small number would stay.

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