U.S. threatens Syria over ‘gas attack plan’
Russia urges U.S. to halt provoking Syrian army
The White House has accused Syria of preparing to stage a chemical attack in the country, threatening that the United States would make Damascus pay “a heavy price.”
Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed in a statement that the U.S. had “identified potential preparations” for an attack “that would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children.”
Spicer said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian military would “pay a heavy price” if they went ahead with the alleged plan.
A familiar manner of ratcheting up tensions
The Associated Press, meanwhile, cited anonymous U.S. State Department officials who would “typically” be consulted before such statements are made as saying that they had been caught “completely off guard” by Spicer’s statement and that they had come to know about it only after it was released.
The AP report also said that the content of Spicer’s statement “didn’t appear to be discussed in advance with other national security agencies.”
On April 4, over 80 people died in an incident involving chemicals in the town of Khan Shaykhun in the western Idlib Province of Syria. Western countries blamed the Syrian government for what they said was a chemical attack, and days later, the U.S. used it as a pretext to fire 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield in the central province of Homs. U.S. officials claimed that the alleged Khan Shaykhun gas attack had been launched from that airfield.
This is while Syria and its ally Russia said the Syrian government had conducted a conventional airstrike on militant positions in Khan Shaykhun, which also targeted a chemical arms depot held and run by anti-Damascus militants, causing a leakage of the toxic substance and the deaths.
Veteran American investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh recently confirmed the Syrian narrative. He said that U.S. President Donald Trump had ignored important intelligence reports before issuing the order for the missile attack against the Syrian airfield in reaction to the Khan Shaykhun incident.
According to Hersh, Trump turned a blind eye to reports by the U.S. intelligence community which warned that there was no evidence suggesting the Syrians had used a chemical weapon. The U.S. intelligence had found that the Syrians had on April 4 targeted a meeting site of militants, using a Russian-supplied guided bomb equipped with conventional explosives.
Following the U.S. missile strike, Russia said the U.S. could have prompted an all-out war as the projectiles could have hit Russian forces in the country.
Another U.S. official threatens Iran, Russia, as well
The developments follow as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley issued similar remarks on Twitter, saying, “Any further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia & Iran.”
Russia has been lending its airpower to Syria’s counterterrorism operations since September 2015. Iran has also been providing the Syrian military with advisory military support. The collective support has helped Syria rid considerable territory of Takfiri presence and helped establish an all-out ceasefire in the country in late 2016.
Russia has already suspended a military hotline with the U.S. over another provocative incident that saw U.S. forces shoot down a Syrian fighter jet.
The ratcheting up of tensions by the U.S., including with the latest statement, now risks sparking a major confrontation between parties to the Syrian conflict and complicating efforts aimed at resolving it.
The U.S. has unsanctioned presence in Syria
Just hours earlier Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had called on the U.S. to prevent “provocations” against Syrian government forces.
In a phone call initiated by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Lavrov “called on Washington to take steps to prevent provocations against Syrian government forces carrying out operations against terrorists,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
The call was made some eight days after the U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet shot down a Syrian SU-22, which was conducting an operation against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Daesh) terrorists on the outskirts of the city of Raqqah.
On two other occasions in June and May, U.S. warplanes attacked a Syrian military position near At-Tanf, killing an unspecified number of people and causing some material damage.
Syria denies U.S. allegation
However, the Syrian government on Tuesday dismissed White House allegations that it was preparing a new chemical weapons attack, as activists reported an airstrike on an ISIL jail in eastern Syria that they said killed more than 40 prisoners.
The Britain-based so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said at least 15 militants were also killed in the airstrike that happened on Monday in the Deir al-Zor province. The activist-run Deir Ezzor 24 media outlet said at least 60 civilians were killed.
The two groups said the United States-led coalition was behind the strike. Russia and Syria also carry out airstrikes in Dayr al-Zawr, and it was not clear how the activists identified the aircraft responsible. The coalition could not immediately be reached for comment.
Ali Haidar, the Syrian minister for national reconciliation, meanwhile dismissed a White House statement on Monday that warned Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government against carrying out another chemical attack. Haidar told The Associated Press the charges foreshadowed a new diplomatic campaign against Syria at the United Nations.