There is "evidence" that chemical weapons are being prepared by Syria in the northwest, US adviser James Jeffrey says, as the world waits for Turkey, Russia and Iran to prevent Assad's regime from launching an all-out, devastating attack on Idlib.
There is "lots of evidence" that chemical weapons are being prepared by Syrian regime forces in Idlib in northwest Syria, the new US adviser for Syria said on Thursday, as he warned of the risks of an offensive on the country's last big opposition and rebel enclave.
"I am very sure that we have very, very good grounds to be making these warnings," said James Jeffrey, who was named on August 17 as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's special adviser on Syria overseeing talks on a political transition in that country.
"Any offensive is to us objectionable as a reckless escalation," Jeffrey told a few reporters in his first interview on the situation in Syria since his appointment. "There is lots of evidence that chemical weapons are being prepared."
The White House has warned that the United States and its allies would respond "swiftly and vigorously" if regime forces used chemical weapons in the widely expected offensive.
Jeffrey said an attack by Russian and Syrian forces, and the use of chemical weapons, would force huge refugee flows into southeastern Turkey or areas in Syria which Turkey oversees after military operations.
Syrian leader Bashar al Assad has massed his army and allied forces on the frontlines in the northwest, and Russian planes have joined his bombardment of opposition, rebels and militants there, in a prelude to a possible assault.
Backed by Russian air power, Assad has in recent years taken back one rebel enclave after another. Idlib and its surroundings are now the only significant area where armed opposition to Damascus remains.
The fate of the stronghold in and around Idlib province rests on a meeting to be held in Tehran on Friday between the leaders of Assad's supporters Russia and Iran, and the main opposition force's ally, Turkey.
"We will find out to some degree tomorrow if the Russians are willing to come to a compromise with the Turks," Jeffrey said.
Jeffrey described the situation in Idlib as "very dangerous" and said Turkey was trying to avoid an all-out Syrian regime offensive.
"I think the last chapter of the Idlib story has not been written. The Turks are trying to find a way out. The Turks have shown a great deal of resistance to an attack," he said.
He said the United States had repeatedly asked Russia whether it could "operate" in Idlib to eliminate the last holdouts of Daesh and other extremist groups.
Asked whether that would include US air strikes, Jeffrey said: "That would be one way."
There was periodic co-operation between the United States and Russia against the same terror or militant groups operating in Idlib until mid-2017.
Eight European UN Security Council members on Thursday supported Turkey's diplomatic efforts to avert the offensive in Idlib.
Olof Skoog, ambassador and permanent representative of Sweden to the UN, said at the organisation's headquarters in New York that a full-scale military operation in Idlib would escalate an already dangerous conflict in a volatile region.
"Idlib is the last remaining de-escalation zone in Syria that the Astana guarantors committed to safeguard.
We express our support for the urgent diplomatic efforts being made to this end by Turkey and the United Nations," said Skoog.
Skoog demanded that Russia and Iran uphold "ceasefire and de-escalation arrangements they have previously agreed, including protecting civilians as a matter of priority."
The eight security council members who support Turkey’s efforts are Italy, Germany, France, Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium and Poland.
US sanctions on regime supporters
The US imposed sanctions on Thursday on individuals and entities that have provided support to Assad regime.
The announcement, which was made by the State Department and posted on the Treasury Department’s website, said all US individuals and entities were prohibited from doing business with them.
The individuals sanctioned are Syrian nationals Yasir Abas, Adnan al Ali and Muhammad al Qatirji and Lebanese national Fadi Nasser.
The entities are the Syria-based Qatirji Company, Lebanon-based Nasco Polymers & Chemicals and Abar Petroleum Service SAL and the United Arab Emirates-based International Pipeline Construction and Sonex Investments Ltd.