Wednesday 23 August 2017

UK backs the US as Syrian weapons row rages

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Photo: Reuters
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Photo: Reuters

Josie Ensor

Britain will support any fresh retaliation by the US for the use of chemical weapons by Syria, the UK has said, after the White House revealed it had intelligence the regime was planning another attack.

The US said it had observed preparations at Shayrat air base, where jets which carried out a deadly sarin gas strike in April took off from.

It warned Syria would pay a "heavy price" if it went ahead with such an assault.

The British defence secretary, Michael Fallon, said the UK backed the US when it mounted a Tomahawk missile strike against the regime following the attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, which left 74 people dead, and was prepared to do so again.

"As always in war, the military action you use must be justified, it must be legal, it must be proportionate, it must be necessary. In the last case it was," said Mr Fallon. "If the Americans take similar action again, I want to be very clear - we will support it."

Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, said on Monday night: "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."

Yesterday Capt Jeff Davis, Pentagon spokesman, said the US had seen "activity" at Shayrat airfield that "indicated active preparations for chemical weapons use".

French president Emmanuel Macron agreed during a telephone call with US President Donald Trump yesterday on the need for a "joint response" in the event of another chemical attack in Syria.

The Syrian regime denied the White House claims and Russia, President Bashar al-Assad's main ally, rebuked what it called US "threats".

"I am not aware of any information about a threat that chemical weapons can be used," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

"Certainly, we consider such threats to the legitimate leadership of the Syrian Arab Republic unacceptable."

In an interview after the Khan Sheikhoun attack, a former Syrian chemical weapons chief claimed the regime failed to declare its entire stockpile to the UN's watchdog and was likely still in possession of hundreds of tonnes. However, President Assad insisted after April's strike that the regime was not in possession of any chemical weapons.

Warning

While the motive of the White House in releasing the classified information is unclear, it may have been done with the hope such a public warning might deter the Syrian president from another chemical strike.

Jim Mattis, the US defence secretary, is in Europe for Nato meetings and said the US-led coalition would not to be pulled into a war against the Syrian regime, saying it would keep a strict focus on fighting Isil.

"We won't fire unless they are the enemy, unless they are Isis," he said, using another acronym for the jihadist organisation.

"We just refuse to get drawn into a fight there in the Syria civil war, we try to end that one through diplomatic engagement."

It comes as the US military yesterday said it would assess allegations that a coalition airstrike may have killed more than 40 prisoners held in an Isil-run jail in eastern Syria.

Central Command confirmed it struck jihadist facilities in the town of al-Mayadeen, near Raqqa, on Monday.

Syrian activists reported a jail was struck in the area that at least 42 prisoners were killed, along with around 15 Isil fighters. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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