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MIDEAST >US warns Syria over chemical weapons

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U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in Israel on April 21 that there can be “no doubt” Syria has retained some chemical weapons and warned President Bashar al-Assad’s regime not to use them.

Mattis made the comments during a one-day visit for talks with Israeli leaders, who strongly supported a recent U.S. strike against a Syrian airbase in retaliation for an alleged chemical attack on a rebel- held town.

“The bottom line is 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,” Mattis said during a press conference with Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman.

“It’s a violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions, and it’s going to have to be taken up diplomatically, and they’d be ill-advised to try to use any again. We’ve made that very clear with our strike,” Mattis said, adding that Syria had “dispersed their aircraft in recent days.”

An Israeli military assessment has found that Assad’s regime was still in possession of “a few tons” of chemical weapons, an army official confirmed.

Some Israeli media reports put the number at between one and three tons. Lieberman declined to comment on the assessment at April 21’s press conference in Tel Aviv.

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 U.S. military action.

The agreement was later enshrined in a U.N. Security Council resolution.

Mattis, the first member of President Donald Trump’s cabinet to visit Israel, later held talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, followed by President Reuven Rivlin.

Israel and the United States have long had close strategic ties, with Washington providing Israel more than $3 billion per year in defense aid and Trump pledging unstinting support for the country.

Despite tensions over Israeli settlement building, Barack Obama’s administration signed a new agreement with Israel before he left office increasing the amount to $3.8 billion for a 10-year period beginning in 2018.

Mattis sought to hear directly from Israeli leaders on their concerns and what they expect from the Trump administration, a U.S. defense official said.

April/21/2017

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