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U.S. watching Syria closely as new chemical weapons allegations swirl

November 26, 2018

The Syrian and Russian governments say armed “terrorists” in Aleppo carried out a “toxic gas” attack in recent days, a claim opposition forces in war-torn Syrian city are denying.

Russian military forces launched retaliatory airstrikes on opposition enclaves in Aleppo on Sunday, a day after Syrian state media reported that roughly 100 people had been hospitalized with breathing difficulties in the city.

The developments signal a potential escalation between the Russian and Syrian side and the Trump administration, which has previously accused the Syrian government of carrying out chemical attacks then falsely blaming the attacks on rebels to justify Russian bombing campaigns.

There was no immediate response from the administration to this weekend’s developments.

But Russia’s foreign ministry pounced on the developments Sunday, claiming Aleppo had been shelled with toxic gases in an attack aimed at disrupting normalization in Syria, according to the TASS news agency in Moscow.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told TASS the Kremlin was calling on the international community to condemn the “terrorist” attack.

“The shelling of a peaceful city of Aleppo, which was carried out by terrorists and militants from the areas controlled by them, is an attempt to undermine the process of normalization in Syria, which should be definitely condemned by the entire global community,” Ms. Zakharova said, suggesting the incident involved chlorine gas.

Syrian opposition figures, including a key leader of the National Liberation Front (NLF) an umbrella organization of Turkey-backed rebels that includes the U.S.-supported Free Syrian Army dismissed the Russian claim.

The head of the NLF’s legislative office, Omar Huthayfa, told Al Jazeera over the weekend that his organization does not possess poisonous gas and said the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad was attempting to frame the organization.

“I believe that this is an act carried out by the government. We’ve seen it in Ghouta and in Khan Sheikhoun in the past and the international community remained silent,” Mr. Huthayfa told Al Jazeera.

Trump administration officials have made similar assertions about the Assad government over the past year.

In August, the State Department warned the Assad government that any sign of the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be met in a “swift and appropriate manner.”

Since April 2017, President Trump has twice authorized American strikes targeting Syrian forces in response to chemical weapons attacks that U.S. officials blamed on the Assad regime.

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis said in August that U.S. officials were privately pressing Russia at the time to ensure no chemical attack occurred in Syria’s Idlib province even as Russian officials insinuated that it’s the West that is likely staging a chemical assault of its own as a “false flag” pretext to once again strike Mr. Assad’s forces.

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