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Western military powers have warned the Syrian government against using chemical weapons again. It comes as the Assad regime is expected to launch an offensive against the last rebel-held province.
The United States, France and Britain on Tuesday vowed to respond to the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad amid anticipation the regime is preparing a major offensive to retake Idlib province.
The statement from the permanent UN Security Council members came on the fifth anniversary of a sarin nerve agent attack in Eastern Ghouta that killed hundreds of people. The West blamed the attack on the Assad regime, which in turn blamed rebels.
"As Permanent Members of the Security Council, we reaffirm our shared resolve to preventing the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, and for holding them accountable for any such use," the three military powers said in a joint statement.
"As we have demonstrated, we will respond appropriately to any further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, which has had such devastating humanitarian consequences for the Syrian population," the three countries said.
The United States and Russia brokered a 2013 deal to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons program following US threats of military action in response to the Ghouta attack.
The Syrian regime has since been accused by Western powers of using chemical weapons on dozens of occasions, including in Khan Sheikhoun, Ltamenah, Saraqeb, and Douma.
Most of the suspected regime attacks involved chlorine, but the UN chemical watchdog determined sarin was used in the April 2017 aerial attack on Khan Sheikhoun that killed more than 70 people.
The Khan Sheikhoun attack led to the US to launch cruise missile strikes on a Syrian airbase, raising concerns over a direct conflict with the Assad regime’s ally, Russia.
In April this year, the US, UK and France conducted joint airstrikes in Syria in response to the suspected chemical attack in Douma.
Russia has repeated shielded Syria at the UN from being blamed for chemical weapons attacks. When the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons blamed the Assad regime for the use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, Moscow responded last November by vetoing a renewal of their mandate to apportion blame for chemical weapons attacks.
In June, a Western-backed move supported by parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention enabled members to established responsibility without the inference of governments, which the US, France and UK said "will help ensure that the perpetrators of chemical weapons use in Syria cannot escape identification."
Concern chemical weapons could be used in Idlib
The US, UK and France also said they were "gravely concerned" over the humanitarian consequences of a Syrian regime offensive on Idlib province abutting Turkey.
"We also underline our concern at the potential for further – and illegal – use of chemical weapons" in Idlib province, the trio said.
Backed by Russia and Iran, the Assad regime has largely turned the war in its favor, retaking large swaths of territory from rebels since Russia intervened in 2015.
Idlib province is the last rebel stronghold and is dominated by jihadists factions.
Thousands of rebel fighters and their families have been transported to Idlib from other parts of the country under Russian-brokered "reconciliation deals" that have handed numerous towns and cities back to the government.
The UN has warned an offensive could unleash a major humanitarian catastrophe for the 2.5 million civilians in Idlib, most of whom are internally displaced from other parts of Syria.
A Syrian offensive could also put the Assad regime into direct conflict with Turkey, which has around a dozen military posts in Idlib and seeks to prevent a massive influx of refugees and rebel fighters from pouring across its border.
cw/sms (AFP, AP)