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US threatens to ‘respond swiftly’ if Assad uses chemical weapons

As Syrian regime builds up offensive on stronghold of Idlib, White House says such an attack would be a ‘reckless escalation’

A picture taken on September 4, 2018 shows a fire engine drives through a damaged road after a reported Russian airstrike in the rebel-hold town of Muhambal, about 30 kilometers southwest of the city of Idlib. (AFP/ OMAR HAJ KADOUR)
A picture taken on September 4, 2018 shows a fire engine drives through a damaged road after a reported Russian airstrike in the rebel-hold town of Muhambal, about 30 kilometers southwest of the city of Idlib. (AFP/ OMAR HAJ KADOUR)

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

The warning came amid signs that Syrian President Bashar Assad was preparing an offensive in Idlib province that the United Nations has said poses the threat of a humanitarian disaster.

“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 Sanders said in a statement.

The White House was “closely monitoring the situation in Idlib province, Syria, where millions of innocent civilians are under threat of an imminent Assad regime attack, backed by Russia and Iran,” Sanders said.

“President Donald J. Trump has warned that such an attack would be a reckless escalation of an already tragic conflict and would risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of people,” she added.

Earlier Tuesday, the Kremlin criticized Trump for warning against an expected Syrian government offensive on the opposition’s last stronghold.

Syrian rebel fighters from the recently formed “National Liberation Front” reinforce a position along the front near the village of Abu Dali in the Idlib province countryside on September 1, 2018, in anticipation of an upcoming government forces offensive. (AFP PHOTO / Nazeer AL-KHATIB)

The verbal clash came as towns and villages in the northern Idlib province, where Syria’s rebels are holed up, came under intense airstrikes, killing at least eight people, according to a search and rescue group and a conflict monitoring group.

The Civil Defense rescue group said five children were killed in airstrikes on the town of Jisr al-Shughour and another three civilians were killed in strikes on the village of Mahambal. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported nine people killed.

The Observatory blamed the strikes on Russia, which has been waging an air campaign on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces since 2015.

Trump on Monday sent a tweet warning the Syrian government and its allies against a “reckless attack” on the rebel-held Idlib province.

Russia says jihadists in Idlib target its own facilities in Syria and pose a terrorist threat.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated Russia’s position, calling Idlib a “hornets’ nest of terrorists.”

Asked about Trump’s tweet, Peskov said such warnings do not consider “the dangerous and negative potential” of the rebel-held enclave and show that the White House does not have a “comprehensive approach” to solving the Syria crisis.

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