Assad preparing chemical weapons attack in Syria, US claims

US military sources reportedly surprised by White House’s public warning that regime would pay heavily for repeat of April attack

A civil defence member breathes through an oxygen mask after the gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun in April.

The White House has declared that it believes Bashar al-Assad’s regime is preparing to carry out another chemical weapons attack, and warned that the Syrian leader and his military would “pay a heavy price” if it went ahead.

The unusual public warning on Monday night appeared to be intended to deter the regime from repeating its use of chemical weapons against rebel-held cities and towns. It may also have been aimed at the regime’s backers in Moscow and Tehran, who have resolutely backed Assad and denied the regime’s responsibility for chemical weapons use.

US Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East, said in a statement: “For this matter, we have no information to add to what has already been stated.”

Several US news outlets quoted unnamed US military sources as saying they had been taken by surprise by the announcement and had no independent knowledge of chemical weapons preparations. However, intelligence on any such Syrian activities is likely to have been closely held.

The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, tweeted: “Any further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia and Iran who support him killing his own people.”

On 6 April, Donald Trump ordered a salvo of 59 Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian airbase alleged to have been the launching point for a sarin attack that killed at least 80 people three days earlier in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. Russians were present at the Shayrat base, near Homs, but US planners ensured that the missiles used in the night-time strike fell well away from the Russian compound.

In a bluntly worded statement released late on Monday night, the White House said: “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.

“The activities are similar to preparations the regime made before its April 4, 2017 chemical weapons attack,” the White House said. “As we have previously stated, the United States is in Syria to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. If, however, Mr Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price.”

The UK’s defence secretary, Michael Fallon, said the US had not shared any evidence of a specific threat of a chemical weapons attack.

“We are very clear the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime is absolutely abhorrent and the last time the United States took action to deal with the aircraft and airbase from which these chemical weapons were used we fully supported their strike,” Fallon told the BBC.

The UK would support any US attack on Assad so long as it was proportionate, legal and necessary, Fallon added.

Frants Klintsevich, who sits on a defence committee in the Russian parliament, criticised the White House warning. The US is “preparing a new attack on the positions of Syrian forces,” Klintsevich told state-owned RIA Novosti, adding: “Preparations for a new cynical and unprecedented provocation are underway.”

Although the focus of US military operations in the region is the defeat of Isis in its two major strongholds, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, the Trump administration has showed itself willing to act if the Assad regime carries out a major chemical weapons attack. US forces in Syria have also been empowered to defend themselves and their allies against attack, which has led to a string of recent clashes with pro-regime forces competing for the same territory.

“The White House must have solid intelligence about a possible Syrian sarin attack but why they chose to send [a] message to Assad and Putin via press release isn’t clear,” Daryl Kimball, the head of the Arms Control Association said in a tweet. Kimball said that the risk of coming into conflict with Russian forces in the event of another punitive US strike was higher now than it was in April.

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