By Kambiz Foroohar and Toluse Olorunnipa
The Trump administration’s accusation that Syrian forces are planning another chemical-weapons attack on rebel forces is also a warning to Russia and Iran that they are “on notice” if such an assault takes place, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said.
The U.S. identified “potential preparations” by President Bashar al-Assad’s military for the use of chemical weapons that appear similar to the attack that prompted President Donald Trump to order a cruise-missile strike against Syrian military targets on April 6, according to a statement from press secretary Sean Spicer late Monday.
“The goal is at this point not just to send Assad a message but to send Russia and Iran a message that if this happens again, we are putting you on notice,” Haley told a congressional subcommittee on Tuesday. “My hope is that the president’s warning will certainly get Russia and Iran to take a second look and I hope that it will caution Assad.”
The warning is another sign of the heightening tensions with Russia over a range of issues including its meddling in the 2016 presidential election and the U.S. shoot-down of a Syrian jet earlier this month, which prompted Moscow to threaten U.S. planes flying over certain parts of the Middle East country.
Spicer said in the statement that the U.S. is in Syria to eliminate the Islamic State militant group and that Assad would “pay a heavy price” if he conducts another chemical weapons attack.
Russia and Syria both have repeatedly rejected accusations that Assad’s government was behind the April 4 chemical weapons attack, blaming rebels instead.
“We don’t know the basis for this and of course we categorically disagree with the phrasing of it as ‘another attack,’” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Tuesday on conference call. Russia views any threat against Syria as unacceptable, he added.
In the wake of the U.S. warning, Assad visited Russia’s Khmeimim airbase, where he viewed a Syrian jet and met the head of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov.
French President Emmanuel Macron and Trump spoke by phone Tuesday about the “the necessity to work on a common response in the case of a chemical attack in Syria,” Macron’s office said. They also discussed the need to “avoid any escalation” in the Persian Gulf and to fight terror financing.
U.K. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said Britain would back another U.S. cruise-missile strike against Syrian targets if warranted.
“It must be proportionate, as always in war,” Fallon told BBC Radio 4 Tuesday. “In the last case it was, and, if the Americans take similar action again, I want to be very clear we will support it.”