Syria’s Assad said to OK chlorine gas use in Idlib offensive

Report says US weighing responses to a chemical weapons attack but no decision yet on whether to take military action

This picture shows the aftermath of strikes by Syrian government force on the town of Al Habit on the southern edges of the rebel-held Idlib province on September 9, 2018. (AFP Photo/Omar Haj Kadour)

Syrian President Bashar Assad has authorized his forces to use chlorine gas in the assault on the last significant rebel redoubt in the country, The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday.

Syrian and Russian aircraft have pounded Idlib province over the past few days as the government kicked off an offensive to retake the area after a summit in Iran of key stakeholders failed to bring about a settlement.

US President Donald Trump warned last week against an offensive by the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies, while the State Department said ahead of an American official’s visit to Israel earlier this month that the US will respond to any chemical attacks by Assad’s forces.

According to the report in the Journal, which cited unnamed US officials, the Pentagon is drawing up military responses to Syrian chemical weapons use but a decision has not been made by Trump regarding what would lead to military action nor whether this would include striking Iranian and Russian forces in Syria backing Assad.

The report said non-military measures such as economic sanctions are being weighed.

“We haven’t said that the US would use the military in response to an offensive,” an administration official was quoted saying. “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.”

Illustrative photo: This image, from a video posted on September 18, 2013, shows Syrians in protective suits and gas masks conducting a drill on how to treat casualties of a chemical weapons attack, in Aleppo, Syria (AP)

Though US intelligence has suggested Assad okayed using chlorine gas in the assault on Idlib, according to the report, it was not clear whether he also authorized the use of more deadly sarin gas.

The US launched dozens of missiles at a Syrian military airfield last April after dozens were killed in a sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib.

On Saturday, the United States’ top general said he and Trump have “routine dialogue” about possible military consequences if the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons in Idlib.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford told reporters in New Delhi that no final decision had been made as yet, Reuters reported.

“But we are in a dialogue, a routine dialogue, with the president to make sure he knows where we are with regard to planning in the event that chemical weapons are used,” said Dunford.

Reuters reports he later added: “He expects us to have military options and we have provided updates to him on the development of those military options.”

The United States warned Syria last week it will respond “swiftly and appropriately” if it uses chemical weapons against its people.

“Let us be clear, it remains our firm stance that if President Bashar Assad chooses to again use chemical weapons, the United States and its allies will respond swiftly and appropriately,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.

This picture taken in Kafr Ain on September 7, 2018, shows smoke rising as government forces target the city, 4 kilometers east of Khan Sheikhoun in the southern countryside of Idlib province. (AFP Photo/Anas Al-Dyab)

The United Nations has warned that any military campaign in Idlib could push up to 800,000 people to flee their homes.

The leaders of regime allies Russia and Iran met with the president of rebel backer Turkey in Tehran on Friday but they failed to reach an agreement to avoid a military assault.

The rebel-held region of Idlib and adjacent areas are home to almost 3 million people, half of whom have been displaced from other areas in the country, according to the UN.

Regime troops have for weeks have been massing around Idlib, after Assad’s regime retook control of other areas of the country earlier this year.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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