WASHINGTON, D.C.: 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 said Monday (Tuesday in Manila), warning the regime would pay a “heavy price” if it went ahead with such an assault.
The White House said the preparations were similar to those undertaken by the Assad regime ahead of an apparent chemical attack on a rebel-held town in April.
Washington launched a retaliatory cruise missile strike days later against a Syrian airbase from where it said the chemical weapons attack was launched.
That assault with 59 Tomahawk missiles marked the first direct US attack on the Syrian regime and Trump’s most dramatic military action since he took power 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,” spokesman Sean Spicer said in a statement Monday night.
The two-paragraph communiqué did not offer any evidence justifying the sternly worded warning.
“The activities are similar to preparations the regime made before its April 4, 2017 chemical weapons attack.”
The suspected attack in April in the rebel held town of Khan Sheikhun killed at least 87 people, including many children, and images of the dead and of suffering victims provoked global outrage. The US State Department said it amounted to a war crime.
State Department officials who would normally be involved in a big announcement such as Monday’s warning to Syria said they were caught by surprise, the Los Angeles Times reported.
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 percent 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 Defense 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 Assad’s regime was still in possession of “a few tons” of chemical weapons.