update: The White House has issued a statement Tuesday afternoon after Russia is reported to have begun a bombing campaign over Idlib Province earlier in the day.
The United States warns it will "respond swiftly and appropriately" if Syrian government forces use chemical weapons during their Idlib operations.
According to the statement: "President Donald J. Trump has warned that such an attack would be a reckless escalation of an already tragic conflict and would risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Let us be clear, it remains our firm stance that if President Bashar al-Assad chooses to again use chemical weapons, the United States and its Allies will respond swiftly and appropriately."
This significantly ups the ante concerning possible military escalation in Syria, and the potential for continued Western intervention in the conflict.
And meanwhile the White House issued its threat of another possible retaliatory round of strikes on Syrian government positions the same day a bombshell story contained in Bob Woodward's new book was revealed by the Washington Post.
According to Woodward's account, Trump wanted to assassinate Syrian President Assad and effectively take out the entire Syrian government in April 2017 immediately following claims of a chemical attack on civilians were made.
“Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them,” Trump is reported to have ranted to his top advisors and military planners.
According to the Post:
After Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical attack on civilians in April 2017, Trump called Mattis and said he wanted to assassinate the dictator. “Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them,” Trump said, according to Woodward.
Mattis told the president that he would get right on it. But after hanging up the phone, he told a senior aide: “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.” The national security team developed options for the more conventional airstrike that Trump ultimately ordered.
Now for round 3,789 of everyone's favourite quiz show, "Trump White House or Sopranos Episode?": pic.twitter.com/5g9b8SeiWJ— Peter Spiegel (@SpiegelPeter) September 4, 2018
Needless to say all of this makes what's about to go down in Idlib extremely dangerous for the possibility of broader outbreak of war, after world powers already dodged this bullet multiple times in the past.
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lt doesn't appear that Syrian and Russian forces are overly concerned with the Monday evening threats from both President Trump and Nikki Haley warning Assad and Russia against attacking Idlib Province, as Middle East sources now report that Russia has resumed an intense air campaign over Idlib for the first time in 22 days.
Beirut-based Al Masdar News reports, citing Syrian military sources, the Russian Air Force has begun its largest bombing campaign of the year in the Idlib Governorate.
Moments ago at least ten Russian Sukhoi jets launched dozens of airstrikes over the southern and western parts of the Idlib Governorate.
Al Masdar's sources said the Russian Air Force specifically targeted the Jisr Al-Shughour District, including the towns of Al-Shughour, Mahambel, Basnqoul, Zayzooun, Ziyarah, Jadariyah, Kafrdeen, Al-Sahn, Saraseef, and dozen others. The source added that the Russian airstrikes numbered over 50 thus far.
With the large Russian bombardment, the Syrian Arab Army’s (SAA) long-awaited ground offensive is bound to start in the next few days.
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province. The Russians and Iranians would be making a grave humanitarian mistake to take part in this potential human tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. Don’t let that happen!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 3, 2018
Meanwhile the Kremlin has responded to President Trump's Monday evening tweet. According to Reuters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “Just to speak out with some warnings, without taking into account the very dangerous, negative potential for the whole situation in Syria, is probably not a full, comprehensive approach.”
The Kremlin added that the area was a “nest of terrorists” in what's a clear dismissal of Trump's warnings of "Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. Don’t let that happen!"
And following Trump's Monday tweet, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley tweeted her own statement based on the president's words, while specifically invoking the US charge that Assad plans to use chemical weapons. Haley wrote: All eyes on the actions of Assad, Russia, and Iran in Idlib. #NoChemicalWeapons.
It appears that Trump and his cabinet were likely briefed on Monday that Russian strikes would be imminent.
We described previously how Washington is seeking to use the "Assad is gassing his own people" claim to gain leverage over Syria, Russia, and Iran as they seek to root out last major pocket of the al-Qaeda jihadist insurgency from the country.
Despite the latest words from President Trump condemning Syrian and Russian actions in Idlib, the White House's own top State Department official, special anti-ISIL envoy Brett McGurk, issued an unusually frank and accurate assessment of the situation in Idlib a year ago:
"Idlib provice is the largest al-Qaeda safe-have since 9/11, tied to directly to Ayman al Zawahiri, this is a huge problem."
But Trump's latest words appear primarily designed for leverage as there is little on the ground pressure that the US is capable of exerting at this late hour, barring some kind of "chemical provocation" claim.
As Russia has initiated what's already being widely described as a "massive" campaign, we will likely see the major powers involved in the Syrian proxy war go further up the escalation ladder.