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US warns Syria not to use chemical weapons

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US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis became the third senior US official in recent days to warn Syrian President Bashar Assad not to use chemical weapons in its assault on Idlib province.

“In Idlib, we’re watching very closely what the Assad regime, aided and abetted by the Iranians and the Russians are up to,” Mattis told Pentagon reporters. “He’s been warned, and so we’ll see if he’s wised up” he added.

On Sunday, US Vice President Mike Pence said “a wider world is watching” as Syria prepares its final assault on Idlib. That message was reinforced on Monday by Pentagon spokesman Col. Rob Manning, who said Assad has been put on notice. “We have communicated that [to] Damascus, and we hope they’ll adhere to it,” Manning said.

The Syrian regime has twice been targeted by US air and missile strikes after previous alleged chemical attacks. US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford said over the weekend that President Donald Trump “expects” the US military to provide a solution if chemical weapons are used.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has urged the international community to prevent a Syrian government offensive in Idlib. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he said that “not only innocent Syrians, but the entire world stands to pay the price”.

The UN’s humanitarian coordination agency, OCHA, says it is “deeply concerned about this recent escalation of violence [in Idlib], which has resulted in the displacement of over 30,000 in the area. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, in the past few days 1,060 Russian and Syrian air and ground strikes took place in the region, resulting in at least 24 civilian deaths.

The UN says as many as 800,000 people could be displaced by a ground assault on Idlib, which holds over three million people and as many as 70,000 opposition fighters that the Assad regime considers to be terrorists.