US warns Russia it will hit Assad if he uses chemical arms, sources say
By MARGARET TALEV, JENNIFER JACOBS AND ALAA SHAHINE | Bloomberg News (TNS) | Published: August 25, 2018
WASHINGTON — The U.S. has information that Syrian President Bashar Assad may use chemical weapons as he seeks to recapture one of the country’s last rebel-held areas, and has told Russia that it’s ready to respond with stronger military action than it has used against Assad’s regime in the past.
The message was delivered by national security adviser John Bolton to his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, at a meeting in Geneva on Thursday, according to four people familiar with the discussions, who asked not to be identified because the content of talks hasn’t been publicly disclosed.
President Donald Trump has said in the past that he will punish Assad for any further use of chemical weapons, after ordering two limited strikes in similar circumstances since taking office early last year. But the latest warning is more specific, and it comes on the eve of what may be one of the bloodiest campaigns in Syria’s civil war.
Syrian forces, backed by Russian air power, are deploying around the northwestern province of Idlib. That’s the only remaining area where the rebels — now dominated by jihadists from al-Qaida and other groups — have a significant presence. There are estimated to be tens of thousands of fighters there, many of them evacuated to Idlib under cease-fire arrangements as the Assad-Russia-Iran alliance gradually regained control over other parts of Syria.
That advance represented a defeat for the U.S. and its Western and Gulf allies, which have backed rebel groups throughout the seven-year war. They have now largely given up on the goal of toppling Assad, and are focusing instead on curbing Iranian influence in Syria. The U.S. still has about 2,000 troops in northeast Syria, allied with Kurdish groups who are seeking autonomy from Damascus.
The U.S.-Russian talks in Geneva also addressed topics including the possible removal of American troops from a military base on the Syria-Iraq border, or their cooperation with Russian forces nearby, according to the people familiar with the talks. No agreement was reached on the conditions under which that could happen, they said. The U.S. also rejected a Russian proposal for oil sanctions on Iran to be suspended as part of a broader settlement in Syria, the people said.
The two previous American attacks on Syria were largely symbolic and did little damage to Assad’s military capacity. In April 2017, U.S. warships in the Mediterranean Sea fired about 60 cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase which had allegedly been used during a chemical attack. A year later, the U.K. and France joined the U.S. in carrying out multiple airstrikes against government sites.
In the latter case, Defense Secretary James Mattis persuaded the president not to authorize a wider attack, two of the people familiar with the talks said. In the event of another chemical incident, Trump will not be dissuaded, they said.
Assad and his ally Russia say that no chemical weapons were used by the Syrian military, and that the incidents were staged by rebel groups to provide a pretext for Western military intervention.
(With assistance from Ilya Arkhipov.)
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