- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Syrian regime has taken the White House’s recent warning over the future use of chemical weapons in the country’s ongoing civil war to heart, according to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

“It appears they have taken the warning seriously,” Mr. Mattis told reporters traveling with the defense chief to a meeting with NATO leaders in Europe this week. When asked what proof he had that Damascus had heeded Washington’s red line on chemical weapons use, the Pentagon chief replied succinctly: “They didn’t do it.”

On Tuesday, U.K. Defence chief Michael Fallon said he planned to discuss possible military options regarding Syria with Mr. Mattis during this week’s NATO meeting. It remains unclear whether the topic was broached during the talks Wednesday.

Mr. Mattis‘ comments come days after the Trump administration issued an unprecedented warning to Syria Monday night over a looming chemical attack, indicating the U.S. was prepared to take possible military action against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad should such an attack take place.

White House officials declined to provide specifics on the intelligence showing a chemical attack by the regime was imminent. However, U.S. intelligence have reportedly detected activity at the Al Shayrat air base consistent with preparations for a chemical attack. Specifically, American intelligence picked up activity within a specific part of the base, known for housing chemical weapons, according to recent reports.

When asked whether he or the Pentagon were confident such warnings from the White House would be an effective tool to check Mr. Assad’s willingness to use chemical weapons, Mr. Mattis replied: “I’m not paid to have confidence in this sort of thing”

The administration’s decree to ensure Damascus “pay a heavy price” for any use of chemical weapons against forces battling to overthrow the Assad regime drew immediate rebuke from Moscow.

Russian parliamentarian Leonid Slutsky told state-run news outlet TASS that the administration’s threats were doing nothing more than ratcheting up tensions between Washington and Syria, which Moscow has backed militarily in the country’s ongoing civil war. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov flatly denied any intelligence had been unearthed which would indicate a imminent chemical attack by the Syrian regime.

In April, President Trump ordered the bombardment of the Al Shayrat air base in western Syria, which U.S. military and intelligence officials said was the source of the chemical attack that struck Idlib that month.

The 59 Tomahawk missiles delivered by the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers into al Shayrat was “a one-off strike” in response to the Idlib attack, in which munitions armed with sarin nerve gas were dropped on rebel targets, ended in over 80 dead including 11 children, officials from U.S. Central Command said at the time.

However, Mr. Mattis said he would not be surprised if Syria’s chemical weapons is much more extensive than the devastating capabilities regime forces have already displayed from Al Shayrat.

“I think that Assad’s chemical program goes far beyond one airfield,” he said.

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