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US says it suspects the Assad regime may have used chemical weapons

The United States said on Tuesday that it suspected that Syrian government forces have carried out a fresh chemical attack.

The State Department said it was assessing indications that the regime used chemical weapons on Sunday during its offensive in Idlib, the most significant remaining holdout in Syria of jihadist rebels.

'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,' State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.

'We are still gathering information on this incident, but we repeat our warning that if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons, the United States and our allies will respond quickly and appropriately,' Ortagus added. 

The State Department said on Tuesday that it suspected that Syrian government forces have carried out a fresh chemical attack. Officials said it was assessing indications that the regime used chemical weapons on Sunday during its offensive in Idlib (pictured after attack)

'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,' State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement

Ortagus said the alleged attack was part of a violent campaign by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's (pictured) forces violating a ceasefire that has protected several million civilians in the greater Idlib area

Ortagus said the alleged attack was part of a violent campaign by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces violating a ceasefire that has protected several million civilians in the greater Idlib area. 

'The Assad regime's culpability in horrific chemical weapons attacks is undeniable,' Ortagus said, adding that the 'regime's attacks against the communities of northwest Syria must end'. 

She also denounced Russia, the key ally of Damascus, for what she called a 'disinformation campaign' as it tries to blame other parties for chemical attacks.

Russia and Turkey, the key ally of the rebels, in September reached an agreement that nominally protects Idlib amid fears for the safety of some three million people in the northwestern area.

But Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, has seized a large part of the province and adjoining areas, triggering a regime offensive that includes strikes by Syrian and Russian airplanes.

Ortagus said that the offensive has 'destroyed known health facilities, schools, residences and internally displaced person camps'.

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

The warning came despite a trip to Russia last week by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who voiced optimism that the rival powers had found ways to work together on Syria.

Russia and Turkey, the key ally of the rebels, in September reached an agreement that nominally protects Idlib (pictured, after an attack) amid fears for the safety of some three million people in the northwestern area

Trump's administration has twice bombed Syria over Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons, in April 2017 and April 2018. A sarin gas attack in April 2017 in Khan Sheikhun killed 83 people, leading Trump to order a strike by 59 cruise missiles on a Syrian air base

Some 180 civilians have been killed in the flare-up since April 30, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitor. The United Nations says that tens of thousands have fled their homes. 

International inspectors say that Assad's forces have carried out a series of chemical attacks in the course of the brutal civil war, which has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since 2011.

In September, a senior US official said there was evidence showing chemical weapons were being prepared by Syrian government forces in Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold in the country. 

A US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Syrian government had a history of resorting to chemical weapons when fighting intensified. 

The official, however, was not aware of any confirmation of what substance was allegedly used, if at all, and said the US government was still gathering information.

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government on the US statement.

The Trump administration has twice bombed Syria over Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons, in April 2017 and April 2018.  

A sarin gas attack in April 2017 in the town of Khan Sheikhun killed 83 people, according to the United Nations, leading Trump to order a strike by 59 cruise missiles on a Syrian air base.

His action was a reversal from his predecessor Barack Obama, who had declared chemical weapons to be a red line but controversially chose not to respond militarily and instead worked with Russia on a plan that aimed to remove the regime's chemical stockpile.

Trump, however, is also skeptical of a commitment in Syria and last year ordered the withdrawal of all 2,000 US troops, although aides later said a small number would stay.

In March, Syrian state media cited a hospital in government-held Hama as saying 21 people suffered choking symptoms from poison gas after rebels shelled a village.

In January, US national security adviser John Bolton warned the Syrian government against using chemical weapons again.

'There is absolutely no change in the US position against the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime and absolutely no change in our position that any use of chemical weapons would be met by a very strong response, as we've done twice before,' Bolton said at the time.

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