US says Syria plans gas attack in rebel stronghold – WSJ

09:30 • 10.09.18



By  Dion Nissenbaum

 

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has approved the use of chlorine gas in an offensive against the country’s last major rebel stronghold, US officials said, raising the prospects for another retaliatory US military strike as thousands try to escape what could be a decisive battle in the seven-year-old war.


In a recent discussion about Syria, people familiar with the exchange said, President Trump threatened to conduct a massive attack against Mr. Assad if he carries out a massacre in Idlib, the northwestern province that has become the last refuge for more than three million people and as many as 70,000 opposition fighters that the regime considers to be terrorists.


International efforts to avert an offensive have failed to dissuade Syria, Russia and Iran as they try to deliver a crippling blow to rebels who appear to be on the verge of defeat after trying for seven years to force Mr. Assad from power. Russia and Syria have stepped up their airstrikes, while thousands of civilians have been evacuated to government-controlled parts of Syria. Mr. Assad has rebuffed appeals from the United Nations, Turkey, the U.S. and others who have warned that an attack could trigger a new humanitarian crisis.


“Syria is once again at the edge of an abyss,” Francois Delattre, the French ambassador to the United Nations, said last week during a U.N. Security Council meeting on Idlib.


The Pentagon is crafting military options, but Mr. Trump hasn’t decided what exactly would trigger a military response or whether the U.S. would target Russian or Iranian military forces aiding Mr. Assad in Syria, U.S. officials said.


The US could also use things like targeted economic sanctions against Syrian officials instead of military strikes.


“We haven’t said that the U.S. would use the military in response to an offensive,” one senior administration official said. “We have political tools at our disposal, we have economic tools at our disposal. There are a number of different ways we could respond if Assad were to take that reckless, dangerous step.”


Fears of a massacre have been fueled by new U.S. intelligence indicating Mr. Assad has cleared the way for the military to use chlorine gas in any offensive, U.S. officials said. It wasn’t clear from the latest intelligence if Mr. Assad also had given the military permission to use sarin gas, the deadly nerve agent used several times in previous regime attacks on rebel-held areas. It is banned under international law.


US officials wouldn’t say on Sunday whether use of chlorine gas would trigger new U.S. airstrikes against the Assad regime.


“I will not comment on U.S. military plans, but Assad’s use of chemical weapons, sarin and chlorine, and disregard for civilian lives is well documented and contrary to regional stability,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said.


Mr Trump launched airstrikes against Mr. Assad twice in the past two years after accusing the Syrian leader of using sarin gas in attacks that killed scores of civilians, including women and children.


This time, the Trump administration initially set a new red line by warning Mr. Assad that the U.S. would respond if he used chemical weapons. But the administration stance has hardened in recent days, as Mr. Trump has publicly warned Mr. Assad that he risks another U.S. military strike if he tries to retake Idlib.


“By my putting out that message I think maybe it’s going to send a signal,” Mr. Trump said last week in an interview with The Daily Caller, the conservative news website. “I mean we’re going to see, but it’s a terrible thing.”


US officials have been trying for weeks to stave off the offensive. National security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked their Russian counterparts to ensure that no chemical weapons were used in Idlib, U.S. officials said.


On Sunday, there appeared to be few signs that the U.S. threats were having a major impact. Russian and Syrian airstrikes in parts of Idlib and Hama provinces killed nearly two dozen civilians.


Regime helicopters dropped at least 55 barrel bombs—highly destructive oil drums filled with explosives—while Russian warplanes carried out other airstrikes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, prompting thousands in Hama and southern Idlib province to flee their homes.


Since Friday, regime and Russian attacks have struck three hospitals, two first responder centers and one ambulance system, leaving thousands with no access to medical care, according to the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, a France-based charity that supports health care in opposition-held parts of Syria.


Russia and Iran, which provide Mr. Assad with the military firepower he has used to recapture most rebel-held parts of Syria, rejected an appeal last week by Turkey, which has forces operating in the Syrian province along its border, to avert an attack on the rebel haven.


Russia has also rebuffed U.S. warnings and suggested that opposition fighters in Syria might use chemical weapons on civilians in an effort to trigger a U.S. military response. U.S. officials said there is no evidence that Syrian rebels have the ability to carry out such attacks.


Mr. Trump’s first military strike on the Assad regime came in April 2017, when the U.S. military fired nearly 60 cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield in Idlib Province used as the launchpad for a sarin attack that killed at least 83 people.


Mr Trump ultimately approved a one-time strike on the Syrian airfield, which failed to deter Mr. Assad from using chemical weapons again.


At the time, Mr. Trump said he was moved to act by graphic footage and photographs of young Syrian boys and girls choking for breath. Mr. Trump called Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to express his disgust and call for an American response.


“Let’s f—king kill him!” Mr. Trump told Mr. Mattis, according to Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear,” which comes out this week. “Let’s kill the f—king lot of them.”


Mr. Mattis said he would develop options for the president, but then dismissed Mr. Trump’s approach when he got off the call, according to the book.

 

“We’re not going to do any of that,” Mr. Mattis told an aide, according to the book. “We’re going to be much more measured.”

Messrs. Trump and Mattis have both characterized the book as fiction.


The second Western response came five months ago, when the U.S., France and the U.K. fired more than 100 missiles at three Syrian targets in an effort to cripple Mr. Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons after he was accused of again using sarin in a deadly attack on a Damascus suburb. The Assad regime denied using sarin.


During the debate this year over how to respond to the second attack, Mr. Trump’s national-security team weighed the idea of hitting Russian or Iranian targets in Syria, people familiar with the discussions said. But the Pentagon pushed for a more measured response, U.S. officials said, and the idea was eventually rejected as too risky.


A third U.S. strike likely would be more expansive than the first two, and Mr. Trump would again have to consider whether or not to hit targets like Russian air defenses in an effort to deliver a more punishing blow to Mr. Assad’s military.


 





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