Tuesday 25 June 2019

US and Britain threaten Assad over suspected chlorine attack

Continued tensions: A Syrian fighter fires a heavy artillery gun from the rebel-held Idlib province against regime positions. Photo: AFP/Getty
Continued tensions: A Syrian fighter fires a heavy artillery gun from the rebel-held Idlib province against regime positions. Photo: AFP/Getty

Josie Ensor and David Brunnstrom

The United States and Britain have warned Syria that they will "respond appropriately" if allegations of a fresh chemical attack on rebels are confirmed.

Four fighters from the hardline Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group were taken to hospital on Sunday morning after an air assault on the village of Kabana in Latakia, which borders Idlib province - the last-remaining opposition stronghold.

According to an Idlib Health Directorate report, the patients were suffering from "respiratory failure, vomiting, wheezing and damage to their pharynx".

Medical staff said they smelled a substance "that was very similar to that of chlorine" while they were treating the fighters.

The medical team confirmed that it had taken blood and urine samples from the victims and had sent them for testing.

A video from the scene appears to show the fighters struggling for breath, with reddened eyes.

The attack took place on the front line between Islamist HTS fighters and government forces - a mountainous area that has seen fierce fighting in recent weeks.

There has been no independent confirmation of the use of chemicals. White Helmets civil defence workers, which do not operate in the immediate area, said they had no information on the attack.

Donald Trump, the US president, has twice acted in response to a "red line" over chemical weapons once set by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

The Trump administration, alongside the UK and France, hit sites linked to Syria's chemical weapons production in response to chemical attacks in Idlib in 2017 and the Damascus suburb of Douma in 2018.

A US State Department spokesman warned yesterday that Washington and its allies would respond "quickly and appropriately" if the reports were proven.

"Unfortunately, we continue to see signs that the Assad regime may be renewing its use of chemical weapons, including an alleged chlorine attack in north-west Syria on the morning of May 19," Morgan Ortagus said in a statement. "We are still gathering information... but we repeat our warning that if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons, the United States and our allies will respond quickly and appropriately," she said.

It was not clear if the statement marked an official change in policy. The US has previously said that only attacks using nerve agents, not chlorine - a less deadly chemical which has domestic uses - would elicit a military response.

British Prime Minister Theresa May told parliament yesterday that she was in close contact with the US and would "respond appropriately" if a chemical attack was confirmed.

"Our position is clear," she said. "We consider Assad incapable of delivering a lasting peace and his regime has lost its legitimacy due to its atrocities against its own... people."

It is the first reported use of chemicals since the Syrian government began attacking Idlib in earnest last month. The government has been accused of using chemicals against its own people hundreds of times since the war began in 2011.

"Assad has shown time and time again that he uses chemical weapons in strategic areas in order to give his forces advantage," said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, the former commanding officer of Britain's UK Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regiment, who now advises NGOs.

Kabana is a fortified and strategically positioned stronghold that has been frustrating regime advances in Idlib.

The alleged chemical attack came after several failed attempts to capture the area, which overlooks regime-held Latakia - Assad's birthplace.

A US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Syrian government had a history of resorting to chemical weapons when fighting intensified.

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government on the US statement.

In March, Syrian state media cited a hospital in government-held Hama as saying 21 people suffered choking symptoms from poison gas after rebels shelled a village.

In January, US national security adviser John Bolton warned the Syrian government against using chemical weapons again. "There is absolutely no change in the US position against the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime and absolutely no change in our position that any use of chemical weapons would be met by a very strong response, as we've done twice before," he said. (© Daily Telegraph London)

Irish Independent

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