US warns Syria over potential chemical attack; Russia says claim ‘unacceptable’

The Pentagon announced Tuesday it had acquired concrete evidence of activity at a Syrian airfield leading intelligence officials to believe the government of Bashar al-Assad was planning another chemical attack on the country’s civilian population.

The U.S. said it would respond “appropriately” to any chemical attack by Damascus.

Describing the intelligence during a Pentagon briefing, Defense Department spokesman Captain Jeff Davis outlined details of the potential attack.

“This involved specific aircraft in a specific hangar, both of which we know to be associated with chemical weapons use.”

The Pentagon’s disclosure and warning to Assad to avoid chemical weapons Tuesday morning drew a sharp rebuke from the Kremlin, which denounced the report as “unacceptable.”  Syrian state media dismissed the Pentagon claim as a “fabrication.”

Located in the Homs Governorate, Shayrat airfield is operated by the Syrian air force.

On April 4, a chemical compound believed to be sarin gas was allegedly dropped from aircraft based at Shayrat against villagers in Khan Shaykhun located in Idlib Governorate in northwest Syria.  86 Syrian civilians were killed.

International watchdog group, Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said Friday their investigation confirmed the nerve agent was used in the attack, but did not blame a specific source for the atrocity.

In response to the attack, President Trump ordered a retaliatory strike of 59 Tomahawk missiles on Shayrat airfield, which is believed to be the air base from which the Syrian air force carried out the attack.

Both Damascus and the Kremlin denied the Assad government carried out the attack.  Syria claimed aircraft had struck an opposition chemical store in the village, causing the chemical to spread.

One day following the Pentagon‘s disclosure, Defense Secretary James Mattis said warnings to Damascus earlier in the week averted a second chemical attack. The White House said Syria and its military allies would “pay a heavy price”, if another such crime was perpetrated.

“It appears that they took the warning seriously,” Mattis told reporters. “They didn’t do it.”

While an anonymous U.S. official told Reuters evidence obtained by American intelligence of a pending chemical attack was “far from conclusive,” U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley said President Trump’s decision to retaliate against Syria in April prevented another deadly incident.

 

[AP] [Reuters] [Photo courtesy SANA/Reuters/AFP/Getty Images via CBC]