The US has warned the Syrian regime that further use of chemical weapons against civilians will be met with “a much stronger response” from Washington, White House National Security Advisor John Bolton said Monday.
“We’ve tried to convey the message in recent days that if there’s a third use of chemical weapons, the response will be much stronger,” Bolton said in remarks to the conservative Federalist Society in Washington.
“I can say we’ve been in consultation with the British and the French, who joined us in the second strike, and they also agree that another use of chemical weapons will result in a much stronger response.”
The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that Syrian President Bashar Assad has authorized his forces to use chlorine gas in their assault on the last significant rebel stronghold in the country — the northern province of Idlib.
The US carried out a strike on a Syrian airbase in April 2017 in response to a deadly chemical weapons attack in Idlib that left at least 86 people dead, including 27 children, and which allegedly employed the nerve agent sarin.
Then in April 2018 the US, France and Britain launched a joint attack on Syrian facilities after a chemical strike on the city of Douman was reported to have killed at least 70 people. US officials said precision strikes hit a scientific research center near Damascus, a storage facility and command post also near the capital and a chemical weapons storage facility near Homs.
Syrian and Russian aircraft have pounded Idlib province over the past few days as the government kicked off an offensive to retake the area after a summit in Iran of key stakeholders failed to bring about a settlement.
US President Donald Trump warned last week against an offensive by the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders warned last week the US will respond “swiftly and appropriately” if Syria uses chemical weapons against its people.
According to the report in the Journal, which cited unnamed US officials, the Pentagon is drawing up military responses to Syrian chemical weapons use but a decision has not been made by Trump regarding what would lead to military action nor whether this would include striking Iranian and Russian forces in Syria backing Assad.
The report said non-military measures such as economic sanctions are being weighed.
“We haven’t said that the US would use the military in response to an offensive,” an administration official was quoted saying. “We have political tools at our disposal, we have economic tools at our disposal. There are a number of different ways we could respond if Assad were to take that reckless, dangerous step.”
On Saturday, the United States’ top general said he and Trump have “routine dialogue” about possible military consequences if the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons in Idlib.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford told reporters in New Delhi that no final decision had been made as yet, Reuters reported.
“But we are in a dialogue, a routine dialogue, with the president to make sure he knows where we are with regard to planning in the event that chemical weapons are used,” said Dunford.
Reuters reports he later added: “He expects us to have military options and we have provided updates to him on the development of those military options.”
The United Nations has warned that any military campaign in Idlib could push up to 800,000 people to flee their homes.
The rebel-held region of Idlib and adjacent areas are home to almost 3 million people, half of whom have been displaced from other areas in the country, according to the UN.
Regime troops have for weeks have been massing around Idlib, after Assad’s regime retook control of other areas of the country earlier this year.