Syria on alert after threats over alleged gas attack

Damascus (AFP) –


Syria's regime was bracing Tuesday for Western action after US President Donald Trump vowed to respond quickly and forcefully to an alleged chemical attack that has sparked international outrage.

The US, France, and Britain have ramped up pressure on Syria's government by pledging strong reactions to alleged toxic gas use against Douma, the last town still held by rebels in their onetime bastion Eastern Ghouta.

France on Tuesday warned it would retaliate against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if evidence emerges that the "red line" of chemical weapons had been crossed in Douma.

In Damascus, government forces were on high alert in anticipation of a potential Western military strike, according to a war monitor.

"At midnight, the army command put all military positions on alert, including airports and all bases, for a period of 72 hours," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday.

Units were reinforcing positions and preparing themselves for rapid deployment, but troops had not been transferred or withdrawn, according to the Britain-based monitor, which relies on sources in Syria for its information.

Syrian regime forces have categorically denied accusations of using toxic gas including sarin and chlorine in the country's brutal seven-year war.

On Monday, Syria's UN ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari accused Western powers of staging such attacks to justify military action against Damascus.

Jaafari said Washington, Paris, and others were falsely accusing his government of chemical use "in order to pave the way for an attack on Syria like the US and Britain's criminal aggression against Iraq in 2003."

Russia's ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said: "From what we hear now, I am afraid they are looking for a military option, which is very, very dangerous."

- Showdown over rival probes -

First responders in Douma say more than 40 people died on Saturday after the suspected poison gas attack, which left people wheezing, with discoloured skin, and foaming at the mouth.

Douma has faced weeks of regime bombardment and is cut off by the regime, making it extremely difficult for journalists to independently verify the claims.

Reaching sources inside the town is complicated by their patchy access to lines of communication.

AFP currently has no journalists operating in the area where the alleged attack took place, which is under the control of rebel forces.

United Nations chief Antonio Guterres said Tuesday the UN's chemical weapons watchdog should be granted unfettered access to investigate the reports.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons "should be granted full access, without any restrictions or impediments to perform its activities," he said.

The OPCW already says it is investigating but that so far only a "preliminary analysis" had taken place.

Russia said it was planning to propose its own "transparent and honest" probe at a UN Security Council meeting on Tuesday.

It said the OPCW's experts could be involved, and that Syrian troops would ensure their safety.

Moscow, which has backed the Syrian regime's assault on Eastern Ghouta, has said its own investigators already entered Douma and found no trace of chemical use.

"Fabrications and false stories are being used to find some pretext for the use of military force," deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov said.

The US has called for the UN to set up a probe to identify who carried out the alleged gas attack, but Russia could veto if a vote takes place on Tuesday.

US Ambassador Nikki Haley said the "world must see justice done", while Trump warned the perpetrators there would be a "big price to pay."

Trump on Monday met both his cabinet and top generals, saying the US had "a lot of options militarily" and would decide in the coming days.

- 'Crime against humanity' -

In April last year, Trump launched a cruise missile strike against a Syrian air base after a sarin attack the UN later pinned on Assad.

Israel, too, has bombed Syrian military positions, with Damascus and Moscow accusing it of a raid against an airbase in central Syria early Monday.

They said Israel had targeted the T-4 base before dawn with F-15s from Lebanese airspace.

The Observatory said 14 fighters were killed, including Syrian army officers and members of Iranian forces.

Israel has not commented on the strike but did slam the alleged chemical attack on Douma as a "crime against humanity."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said those behind the attacks would "pay a heavy price," after rebel-backer Ankara had said it suspected Assad was responsible.

Douma is the last rebel-controlled area in Ghouta, the opposition's former stronghold on the edges of Damascus.

Syria's regime has captured most of Ghouta since February 18 with a ferocious military assault and two negotiated rebel withdrawals.

A third deal was reached for Douma just hours after the reported chemical attack, and a 65-bus convoy of rebels and civilians was evacuated from the town overnight.

Syria's conflict erupted with anti-Assad protests in 2011 but has since evolved into a complex war that has killed 350,000 people.

Late Monday, 31 people including many children died in a blast in the opposition-held city of Idlib, the Observatory said.