WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is prepared to launch another missile strike against Syrian targets should the Assad regime use chemical weapons in its anticipated attack against the enclave of Idlib province, Pentagon officials said Thursday.
The strikes would ideally be in concert with allies, as they were last spring with France and Great Britain following Syria’s use of chemical weapons then. However, the U.S. could also conduct a retaliatory attack alone, the officials said.
If chemical weapons are not used, the Pentagon does not plan any action, the officials said.
Idlib is one of the last major areas of active military opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s control. It is located in the northwest part of Syria, a part of the country where the U.S.-supported anti-ISIS coalition does not operate.
According to the UN, Idlib is home to about 2.9 million civilians, including 1.4 million displaced from other parts of Syria — prompting fears of a humanitarian tragedy should an attack occur. There are an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 rebel fighters in that enclave, according to published reports.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, warned the Syrian government not to use chemical weapons in an attack against Idlib.
Moscow has accused Syrian rebels of planning a “false-flag” chemical attack in Idlib to trigger airstrikes, a position scoffed this week by Defense Secretary James Mattis.
On Wednesday, Russian warplanes began bombing parts of the enclave, a move which one of the Pentagon officials described as “conditioning the environment” for an assault. Those airstrikes was joined by Syrian artillery fire on Friday, according to news reports.
On Friday Russian president Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Tayypi Erdogan and Iranian leader Hassan Ruhano met in Istanbul to discuss the Idlib situation. According to news reports, Erdogan pushed for a ceasefire, which Putin rejected.
According to Human Rights Watch, evidence strongly suggests that Damascus used chemical weapons in several barrel bomb attacks in Idlib province between March 16 and 31, 2015.