Assad Taking US Threats ‘Seriously’ as Moscow Vows ‘Appropriate Response’ to Washington

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Moscow, London – Russian Foreign Sergei Lavrov announced on Wednesday that his country will respond with “dignity and in proportion” if the United States took preemptive measures against the Syrian regime forces should they launch a new chemical attack.

He hoped during a press conference with his German counterpart that Washington would not use its intelligence assessments about the regime’s intentions as a pretext to mount a “provocation” in Syria.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis stated that regime head Bashar Assad appeared so far to have heeded a warning this week from Washington not to carry out a chemical weapons attack.

The White House said on Monday it appeared the Syrian regime was preparing to conduct a such an attack and said that Assad and his forces would “pay a heavy price” if it did so.

The warning was based on intelligence that indicated preparations for such a strike were under way at Syria’s Shayrat airfield, US officials said.

The intelligence consisted of a Syrian warplane being observed moving into a hangar at the Shayrat airbase, where US and allied intelligence agencies suspect the Assad regime is hiding chemical weapons, said a second US official.

“It appears that they took the warning seriously,” Mattis said. “They didn’t do it,” he told reporters flying with him to Brussels for a meeting of NATO defense ministers.

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

The Syrian regime meanwhile said the US warning was baseless, deeming it a ploy to justify a new attack on the country, state television said.

It quoted a foreign ministry source as saying Washington’s allegations about an intended attack were not only misleading but also “devoid of any truth and not based on any facts.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry had said the US statements on Syria’s chemical arsenal are an “invitation” for terrorist and extremist groups and the armed opposition to carry out “new provocative chemical attacks” to prompt Washington to retaliate against the regime.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is expected to issue within days the final report on the April Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack that was committed by the Syrian regime and left 74 people dead. The incident prompted the US to strike the Shayrat airbase in response.

Moscow has been insistent that a joint committee be formed to investigate the chemical attack.

The Foreign Ministry said that this committee should not only look into the Khan Sheikhoun incident, but other chemical attacks in Syria and Iraq.

France’s Macron Vows Reprisals against Chemical Weapons Usage in Syria

The use of chemical weapons in Syria is a red line for France and would result in reprisals, Emmanuel Macron said on Monday during his first meeting as president of France with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

“Any use of chemical weapons would results in reprisals and an immediate riposte, at least where France is concerned,” Macron said at a joint news conference with Putin in which he added that his aim was the fight against terrorism in the country. He said he wanted to work with Putin to that end.

The two countries back different sides in the Syrian conflict, with Putin behind regime head Bashar al-Assad and Macron part of a western coalition that supports rebel groups and has accused Assad of using chemical weapons in the past.

Macron said he had a frank exchange of views with Putin, and that the two had aired their disagreements on a number of subjects.

For his part, Putin said sanctions against Russia will not help stabilize east Ukraine. He also voiced the possibility for improving interaction with France on Syria.

Addressing forces present in Syria, Putin added that Russia has no details on how independent France is from the United States on operations in the war-torn country.

Towards the end of the meeting Macron said that reopening the French embassy in Syria is not a priority at the moment.

Guatemalan Diplomat Becomes Head of OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism

New York- United Nations chief Antonio Guterres has appointed Edmond Mulet of Guatemala as the head of the independent three-member panel to lead the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism that was established by Security Council Resolution 2235 in 2015 on the use of chemicals as weapons in Syria.

“The Secretary-General reiterates his deepest gratitude to the outgoing Head of the Mechanism, Virginia Gamba of Argentina, for her diligence, dedication and professionalism,” a statement issued by Guterres’ press office said on Thursday.

Gamba will be taking the position of Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, replacing Algeria’s Leila Zerrougui.

Mulet most recently served as Chef de Cabinet to former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon from 2015 to 2016. He was Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations from 2007 to 2010 and again in 2011 through 2015. He also served as Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) between 2006 and 2007 and 2010 and 2011.

Prior to that, he was Guatemala’s Ambassador to the European Union and the United States. He was a member of Guatemala’s National Congress for 12 years, including one term as its President.

Born in 1951, Mulet was educated in Guatemala, Canada, United States and Switzerland.

In addition to his public service, he worked for many years as a journalist and as a legal counsellor in public institutions and in the private sector.

In a separate statement, Guterres reiterated his call for all parties in Syria to cooperate fully with the Joint Investigation Mechanism, saying he counted on the continued engagement and support of the members of the Security Council as well as the entire UN membership to ensure the effective implementation of the JIM’s mandate.

The Security Council renewed through Resolution 2319 the mandate of the JIM for a further period of one year on November 17, 2016.

Djibouti Defense Minister: Agreement with Riyadh Aims to Secure Region, Monitor Military Meddling

Riyadh- Djibouti’s Defense Minister Ali Hasan Bahdon stressed that a military and defense agreement signed between Saudi Arabia and Djibouti in Riyadh on Wednesday lies in the interest of the two nations and the region’s security.

Bahdon told Asharq Al-Awsat that “Saudi Arabia is the backbone of stability in the region but is being targeted for this role.”

He said Djibouti is cooperating with Riyadh to monitor any military intervention or weapons smuggling from Iran to Yemen.

Asked to evaluate military and defense relations between Djibouti and Riyadh, Bahdon said: “I met Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz and handed him a letter from Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh on bilateral relations and his vision on topics of mutual interests.”

“We signed a military agreement in the field of cooperation and defense with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Second Deputy Premier and Minister of Defense. We also discussed possible cooperation between the two countries in various sectors,” he added.

Commenting on the use of chemical weapons in Syria and Yemeni rebels targeting civilians, Djibouti’s Defense Minister said that Iranian intervention is the reason behind the crises in Syria and Yemen.

He also rejected the use of chemical weapons and targeting civilians in Syria or any other place in the world.
He revealed that Djibouti has welcomed Yemenis in their thousands and provided all it can to help them. “We never considered them as refugees. We considered them our brothers and guests.”

Asked to describe ties between Djibouti and the US, Bahdon answered that cooperation comes in line with the strong relations between the two countries.

“Since 2001, Djibouti has acted to fight terrorism and opened its ports to receive international forces working for the same purpose, as a response to UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions,” he said.

“There is a US base in Djibouti because it has a strategic location,” he said.

Al-Jubeir: Syrian Regime Must Pay Price of Using Chemical Weapons

Jubeir

Riyadh – Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir stressed during a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that head of the Syrian regime Bashar Assad has no place in Syria’s future.

He reiterated Riyadh’s stance that Assad needs to leave, either through the political option or through the military one.

Moreover, the foreign minister demanded that the regime pay the price for its use of chemical weapons and that an end be made to the meddling of Iran and “Hezbollah” in the region.

Al-Jubeir praised during the conference the good ties between his country and Russia, saying that Saudi Arabia coordinates stances on the Syrian crisis with Moscow.

The two countries are in agreement on the need to respect the sovereignty of countries.

Commenting on the Yemeni file, al-Jubeir said: “We discussed the situation in Yemen and the need to find a solution to it based on the United Nations Security Council resolution.”

He also stressed support to international envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed.

On the Palestinian cause, he revealed: “We discussed the Middle East peace process and the Syrian crisis and the need to preserve the country’s unity.”

The Syrian regime has repeatedly violated the ceasefire agreement, al-Jubeir declared.

He also backed carrying out investigations in the chemical attack in Syria’s Khan Sheikhoun, saying that the regime has to prove that it does not possess chemical arms.

For his part, Lavrov stated that Moscow and Riyadh can play a role in resolving crises, specifically in Syria.

He noted: “We have clear differences in stances with Saudi Arabia over Syria, but we are working together to find a solution.”

He added that Iran and Russia are present in Syria at the request of the regime.

Furthermore, he voiced his agreement with al-Jubeir’s stance on committing to resolution 2254 on Syria, “but the debate should be over how to implement it.”

“We are satisfied with the discussions we held today with the Saudi foreign minister,” Lavrov stated, adding that talks also tackled the escalating crises in the Middle East and North Africa.

US Defense Sec’y Mattis: Syrian Regime Retains Chemical Weapons

U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis speaks at the opening of the 53rd Munich Security Conference in Munich

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday that Syria still possesses banned chemical weapons in violation of an agreement to get rid of its entire stockpile.

Mattis, speaking during a press conference with Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman in Tel Aviv, declined to comment on the number of weapons Washington believes Syria has retained.

“There can be no doubt in the international community’s mind that Syria has retained chemical weapons in violation of its agreement and its statement that it had removed them all. There is no longer any doubt,” he told reporters.

When asked whether the Syrian regime had moved its combat aircraft to a Russian base in Latakia, Mattis said: “They have dispersed their aircraft, no doubt. They have dispersed their aircraft in recent days.”

The implication is that Syria may be concerned about additional US strikes following the cruise missile attack earlier this month in retaliation for alleged Syrian use of sarin gas.

The United States launched dozens of missiles against a Syrian air base in response to a chemical attack that killed 90 people, including 30 children. It says the Syrian regime launched the attack from the Shayrat air base.

Mattis also reiterated that the United States believed Syria had retained some chemical weapons.

“The bottom line is, I can say authoritatively they have retained some (chemical weapons). It’s a violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions, and it’s going to have to be taken up diplomatically,” he said.

Head of Syrian regime Assad, backed by his ally Russia, has strongly denied the allegation that his forces used chemical weapons against the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun on April 4, describing it as a “100 percent fabrication”.

He has said repeatedly that his forces turned over all chemical weapons stockpiles in 2013, under a deal brokered by Russia to avoid threatened US military action.

The agreement was later enshrined in a UN Security Council resolution.

France Has Evidence Assad Regime Used Chemical Weapons

London– The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said on Wednesday that sarin or a similar banned toxin was used in an attack in Syria’s Idlib province on April 4.

Reuters quoted the organization’s director, General Ahmet Uzumcu as saying that the results of the analysis “indicate that sarin or a sarin like substance was used”.

The finding was based on tests on bio-medical samples collected from three victims during their autopsies that were analyzed at two OPCW-designated laboratories, the OPCW said, according to Reuters.

“Bio-medical samples from seven individuals undergoing treatment at hospitals … (also) indicate exposure to sarin or a sarin like substance,” the statement via Reuters said.

The suspected attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib killed at least 87 people, including many children, and images of the dead and of suffering victims provoked global outrage.

In an exclusive interview last week with AFP in Damascus, the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar Assad, said the chemical attack was a “fabrication” to justify a US missile attack on Syrian forces.

Earlier on Wednesday, France said it has proof that the regime used chemical weapons in the attack on Khan Sheikhoun.

French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said that his country’s intelligence services would provide proof in the coming days that the Syrian forces have used chemical weapons in the attack.

“There is an investigation underway (by) the French intelligence services and military intelligence … it’s a question of days and we will provide proof that the regime carried out these strikes,” Ayrault told LCP television, as reported by AFP.

“We have elements that will enable us to show that the regime knowingly used chemical weapons,” he added.

Assad Maneuvers to Turn the ‘Chemical Table’

Assad

Beirut, Ankara – As Experts from the World Health Organization (WHO), along with members of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), were expected in Turkey on Thursday as part of their inquiry into the chemical attack that hit the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun last week, the regime of Bashar Assad sought to maneuver and turn the table by accusing the “International Coalition” of killing a large number of civilians in an airstrike on a village east the city of Deir Ezzor two days ago.

Directly following Assad’s comments, the US-led coalition to defeat ISIS denied the regime’s allegations and asserted that it did not launch any strike on Deir Ezzor at that mentioned time.

The Russian Defense Ministry said it has no information about the strike.

Director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Rami Abdel Rahman told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Sure, coalition forces launched airstrikes on Deir Ezzor, but we have no information about the killing of tens or hundreds of people, as the regime is claiming.”

OPCW said on Thursday that a primary assessment conducted by its experts confirms that a chemical attack took place in Khan Sheikhoun.

Assad however said an alleged poison gas attack blamed on his government last week in Idlib province was “100 percent fabrication” and was used to justify a US air strike later that week.

In an interview with AFP, Assad said Syria’s regime had given up all its chemical weapons in 2013 after an agreement made at the time and would not have used them anyway.

“Our impression is that the West, mainly the United States, is hand-in-glove with the terrorists. They fabricated the whole story in order to have a pretext for the attack,” Assad said.

Trump Administration Blames Syria Chemical Attack on Obama ‘Irresolution’

The White House on Tuesday blamed a deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria’s Idlib province on the regime led by authoritarian Bashar al-Assad and said the incident was “reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world.”

“These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the last administration’s weakness and irresolution,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer told a briefing.

“President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing.”

Spicer declined to say what the United States administration would do about the attack but added President Donald Trump had spoken on Tuesday with his national security team about the issue.

A suspected Syrian regime chemical attack killed scores of people, including children, in the northwestern province of Idlib on Tuesday, a monitoring group, medics and rescue workers in the rebel-held area said. The Syrian military denied responsibility and said it would never use chemical weapons.

The head of the health authority in rebel-held Idlib said more than 50 people had been killed and 300 wounded. The Union of Medical Care Organizations, a coalition of international aid agencies that funds hospitals in Syria, said at least 100 people had died.

Spicer reiterated the view expressed by Trump’s top aides in recent days that the US is not now focused on making Assad leave power and the priority instead is on defeating Islamic State militants.

That was a departure from the Obama administration’s public stance on Assad’s fate, and drew criticism for playing down a long-standing US goal to help end the six-year-long Syrian civil war.

Spicer said statements last week by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley “speak to the political realities of the situation in Syria” and that there is no longer a fundamental option of “regime change.”

President Barack Obama set a “red line” in 2012 warning of military action if Assad’s forces used chemical weapons in the civil war. But in 2013 he backed away from carrying out threatened air strikes once a deadly chemical weapons attack was confirmed. That raised concerns among US allies in the Middle East about Obama’s commitment to using force in the region.

Asked if the Trump administration would draw another red line, Spicer said, ”I’m not ready to talk about our next step, but we will get there soon.”

Turkey Says Syrian Regime “Clearly Violated” UN Chemical Weapons Rules

Turkey said footage and information from the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib showed that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons in an attack on Tuesday in what Ankara said was a clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

“Images and information obtained from Khan Sheikhoun show that the regime has clearly violated the U.N. Security Council’s 2118th and 2209th resolutions by using chemical weapons,” the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement.

It called on the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to begin an immediate investigation and urged “the sides that influence the Syrian regime” to help put a stop to what it said were heavy ceasefire violations.

The suspected chemical attack killed at least 58 people, including 11 children, a monitor, medics and rescue workers in the rebel-held area said. A Syrian military source strongly denied the army had used any such weapons.