- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Trump White House’s stern warning to Syria against a new chemical attack has become the latest irritant in the troubled U.S.-Russia relationship, with the Kremlin rushing to the defense of its Syrian ally Tuesday and accusing Washington of instigating violence against the regime in Damascus.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer late Monday night issued the unusual statement, citing recent intelligence showing government forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad appeared to be preparing a new chemical attack. The strike, according to the White House, would be on a par with the attack launched by the Assad regime against anti-government forces near Idlib in April that provoked a retaliatory cruise missile strike ordered by President Trump.

White House officials vowed that Damascus would “pay a heavy price” should it follow through with a second chemical strike against rebel forces in the country.

But as Syria denied it was planning any chemical strike, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a conference call of reporters in Moscow on Tuesday, “I am not aware of any information about a threat that chemical weapons can be used.”

“Certainly, we consider such threats to the legitimate leadership of the Syrian Arab Republic unacceptable,” Mr. Peskov said.

The White House statement said Russia and Iran, Mr. Assad’s other major ally, would share the responsibility if a new chemical attack on the regime’s enemies is launched.

“The goal is at this point not just to send Assad a message, but to send Russia and Iran a message,” U.S. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley told a House hearing Tuesday. ” … My hope is that the president’s warning will certainly get Iran and Russia to take a second look, and I hope that it will caution Assad.”

Iran also responded sharply to the U.S. warning, saying it could undermine the fight to defeat Islamic State and other jihadist groups in Syria. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted that the U.S. statement was based on a “fake pretext” and added that it “will only serve ISIS, precisely when it’s being wiped out by Iraqi and Syrian people.”

In Britain, Defense Secretary Michael Fallon voiced his support for the White House stand, citing the limited but effective U.S. response to the last suspected Syria use of chemical weapons.

“As always in war, the military action you use must be justified, it must be legal, it must be proportionate, it must be necessary, [and] in the last case it was,” Mr. Fallon told reporters in London. “If the Americans take similar action again, I want to be clear, we will support it.”

Mr. Fallon plans to discuss possible joint military responses to Syria with Pentagon chief James Mattis later this week at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

White House officials declined to detail the intelligence showing a chemical attack by the regime was imminent, nor how the U.S. would respond. Officials from U.S. Central Command told BuzzFeed shortly after the announcement that they did not know of any existing intelligence or information that would lead the administration to make such an announcement. State Department officials also were not aware the new warning was in the works, the Los Angeles Times reported.

However, U.S. intelligence have reportedly detected activity at the Al Shayrat air base consistent with preparations for a chemical attack. It was the same base from which U.S. intelligence said the April chemical attack was launched.

“This involved specific aircraft in a specific hangar, both of which we know to be associated with chemical weapons use,” Pentagon spokesman Cpt. Jeff Davis said.

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