Syria and Russia accuse US of gearing up for ‘new aggression’
BEIRUT// Moscow and Damascus accused Washington of preparing for more action against the Syrian government on Thursday, despite US claims that its warnings over the use of chemical weapons earlier this week had been effective.
“The current information campaign is a precursor of a new intervention in Syria,” said Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, according to the state-run Tass news agency. She implied that Syria could see a fake chemical weapons attack soon in rebel-held areas that would then be used to justify US military action.
Her comments came after Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov warned that Moscow would respond “in proportion” to any US attacks on the Syrian government.
“We will react with dignity, in proportion to the real situation that may take place,” he said.
On Monday, Washington warned that Syrian president Bashar Al Assad and his military forces would pay “a heavy price” if — as the White House suspected — they launched another chemical weapons attack.
However, on Wednesday, secretary of defence Jim Mattis said he believed the US warnings had been heeded, since no chemical weapons attack had occurred.
Damascus echoed Moscow’s lines on Thursday, with the Syrian foreign ministry saying this week’s statements from the US were being used to “justify a new aggression on Syria under ill-founded pretexts.”
The statement, carried in Syria’s state-run Sana news agency, accused the US of doing what it had done in April, when it fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at Shayrat airbase days after a sarin attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun killed at least 87 people. The Syrian government maintains that the Khan Sheikhoun attack was fabricated and that they have never engaged in chemical warfare.
Even before Washington’s threats on Monday, tensions with Damascus were increasing, with US jets striking pro-government targets on four separate occasions in the past month in eastern Syria.
Despite threatening force if Damascus resorts to chemical weapons, US officials have repeatedly insisted they are not seeking a conflict with the Syrian government or its allies.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-dominated alliance that has taken the lead in the fight against ISIL, on Thursday warned that the possibility of more clashes with Turkey could “do great harm” to the SDF’s assault on Raqqa, the extremists’ self-declared capital.
The SDF and Turkish army exchanged fire near the town of Azaz in northern Syria this week after Ankara accused the SDF of attacking Turkish-backed rebels in the area. Naser Haj Mansour, a senior SDF official, said any escalation in hostilities between the SDF and the Turkish army could take SDF troops away from Raqqa and the battle against ISIL, just as it enters a critical phase.
“Certainly there is a big possibility of open and fierce confrontations in this area, particularly given that the SDF is equipped and prepared,” he said. “If it [the Turkish army] attacks we will defend, and if it attacks there will be clashes.”
The SDF is dominated by the YPG, a Kurdish militia that Ankara considers to be a terrorist group and the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), with which it is at war at home. But the YPG and the larger SDF have been Washington’s best asset on the ground, which has not helped US relations with its Nato ally, Turkey.
Turkey’s deputy prime minister Numan Kurtulmus on Thursday said Turkey would continue to respond to any provocations from the YPG. The US had to understand that siding with the YPG was the “wrong path,” he added.
The prospect of additional clashes with Turkey was raised as the SDF announced it had cut off the last escape route out of Raqqa for ISIL and now had the city completely encircled. The SDF entered Raqqa on June 6 and are approaching the city centre, where the UN estimates there are still up to100,000 civilians who are prevented by ISIL from leaving.
Tensions are also raised on Syria’s border with Israel. The Israelis struck a Syrian government position for the third time this week after a stray mortar shell landed inside the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
At the time of the incident, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was visiting an area of the Golan Heights 20 kilometres away.
“I said that we will not tolerate spillover and that we will respond to every firing,” he said in a statement. “Whoever attacks us — we will attack him. This is our policy and we will continue with it.”
*with additional reporting from Reuters and Agence France Presse
Updated: June 29, 2017 04:00 AM