Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said Friday the Syrian regime would be “ill-advised” to continue using chemical weapons, suggesting the U.S. would again use military force in response to such attacks.
Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon the U.S. is looking for evidence that Syrian forces used sarin gas in recent attacks, as aid groups on the ground have reported in recent days.
“We’re on the record and you all have seen how we reacted to that, so they would be ill-advised to go back to violating the chemical convention,” Mattis said, according to the Washington Examiner. He was referring to the U.S. military’s strike in April in retaliation for a previous chemical attack.
Several reports from NGOs and relief agencies claim that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues to use chemical weapons against anti-regime fighters and civilians. Last month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Syrian forces deployed chlorine gas during a bombing campaign in Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel-held zone near Damascus.
Mattis said it is obvious that Assad has used chlorine gas in the Syrian civil war, but the U.S. is “even more concerned” about the possible use of sarin, a colorless and tasteless nerve agent that can cause respiratory failure leading to death. At this time, the Pentagon cannot confirm if Assad is still using sarin in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, he said.
“I don’t have the evidence,” Mattis said. “What I’m saying is groups on the ground, NGOs, fighters on the ground said that sarin has been used. So we are looking for evidence. I don’t have evidence.”
If the reports about Assad’s recent use of sarin are correct, it would not be the first time the Syrian regime has deployed the nerve agent against civilians. Samples taken from chemical weapons handed over by the Syrian regime in 2014 were identical to those taken from 2013 sarin nerve gas attacks on Aleppo and Ghouta and the 2017 attack in Idlib province, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) revealed Tuesday.
President Donald Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian military installation in response to the April 2017 sarin attack, which killed more than 100 people.
Washingon has blamed Russia for enabling Assad’s use of chemical weapons. At a conference in Paris last month, Tillerson accused Moscow of violating an agreement to remove chemical weapons from Syria and of shielding Assad from the consequences of using the internationally prohibited weapons.
“Russia’s failure to resolve the chemical weapons issue in Syria calls into question its relevance to the resolution of the overall crisis,” he said, referring to ongoing peace talks meant to wind down the seven-year conflict.
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