U.S. Says Syria’s President May Be Using Chemical Weapons Again

WASHINGTON — The State Department said on Tuesday that the Syrian government might be renewing its use of chemical weapons, citing a suspected chlorine attack in northwest Syria, and maintaining that any use of such weapons would lead the United States and its allies to “respond quickly and appropriately.”

The Trump administration said the suspected attack took place on Sunday in the Idlib area, the final stronghold of rebels who have tried to topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

In the fall, Mr. Assad appeared to be on the verge of ordering an invasion of the area, where millions of civilians live or are seeking safe harbor, before a cease-fire agreement was put into effect between rebel groups and the Syrian government. But since April, the Syrian military, with help from Russian forces, has started an air bombing campaign in Idlib to retake the territory in what is expected to be a slow and bloody campaign.

“Unfortunately, we continue to see signs that the Assad regime may be renewing its use of chemical weapons, including an alleged chlorine attack in northwest Syria on the morning of May 19, 2019,” Morgan Ortagus, a State Department spokeswoman, said in a written statement on Tuesday.

She said the United States was continuing to investigate the suspected attack, which she called “part of a violent campaign by the Assad regime that violates a cease-fire that has protected several million civilians in the greater Idlib area.”

“The United States reiterates its warning, first issued by President Trump in September 2018, that an attack against the Idlib de-escalation zone would be a reckless escalation that threatens to destabilize the region,” Ms. Ortagus said.

Independent monitoring groups and foreign news organizations have not issued any notable reports of a chemical weapons attack on Sunday.

Ms. Ortagus did not specify what the United States might do to punish Mr. Assad. In April 2018, Mr. Trump and European allies ordered limited airstrikes and missile attacks from warships after they concluded the Syrian military had carried out a chemical weapons attack near Damascus that killed at least 40 people.

In April 2017, American ships fired missiles at a Syrian air base after Mr. Assad’s forces carried out a chemical attack that killed at least 80 civilians. American officials had told Russian counterparts about the strike beforehand to try to ensure that Russians would not be in the area.

If Mr. Assad is indeed continuing to carry out chemical weapons attacks, that raises the question of whether Mr. Trump is doing enough to deter such attacks.

Mr. Trump has criticized President Barack Obama for stating that any use of chemical weapons by Mr. Assad would be crossing a “red line” and then not punishing the Syrian president with force after his military carried out a deadly chemical attack in April 2013.

Mr. Trump has been reluctant to get the United States more entangled in military conflicts in the Middle East. It is an issue on which he campaigned in 2016 and on which he has more similarities with the Obama administration than with mainstream Republican politicians.

In a surprise announcement in December, Mr. Trump said he would withdraw American forces from Syria, where about 2,000 American troops were helping Kurdish and Arab militias fight the Islamic State. After widespread criticism from Republicans, Mr. Trump backed away from the idea of an immediate and full withdrawal.

This month, Mr. Trump told his acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, that he did not want to go to war with Iran, even though John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, announced military movements this month and asked for new troop plans in response to what American officials had said was intelligence showing heightened threats in the region from Iran.

In April, the Syrian government and Russian forces began heavily bombing southern Idlib and parts of Hama Province. The fighting has resulted in the deaths of about 223 civilians since April 20, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group based in Britain.

Mr. Trump expressed concern about a potential killing of civilians in Idlib in the fall, when it appeared Mr. Assad was about to order an offensive, but has said nothing this spring.

Ms. Ortagus said on Tuesday that Russia had worked with Mr. Assad in creating false narratives around recent chemical weapons attacks, trying to attribute attacks to groups other than the Syrian military.

“The facts, however, are clear,” she said. “The Assad regime itself has conducted almost all verified chemical weapons attacks that have taken place in Syria.”

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