Mattis Rejects Claim That Syrian Opposition Plans to Stage Attack

(Bloomberg) -- Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the U.S. has “zero intelligence" to support Russian charges that Syrian opposition groups possess chemical weapons that they are ready to use -- a claim that could be used to justify or cover up a chemical attack by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The U.S. has "fairly good penetration of many of the opposition groups,” Mattis told reporters aboard his plane Wednesday en route to India. The U.S. has repeatedly warned Syria against using chemical weapons in its efforts to retake the last remaining opposition bastion, in the northwest province of Idlib.

President Donald Trump has twice authorized air strikes on Syria after previous evidence of chemical weapons use by Assad’s forces. In light of those episodes, "we have made it very clear that by putting out innuendo that somehow any chemical weapons use coming up in the future could be ascribed to the opposition -- well, we want to see the data," Mattis said.

Mattis declined to comment on whether he had indications the Assad regime is ready to launch a new chemical attack except to say that "we are very alert."

After more than seven years of civil war that killed and displaced millions of Syrians, Assad’s government is on the cusp of victory. Syrian forces were bolstered by Russia’s decision in 2015 to intervene in the conflict on their ally’s behalf and by Iran’s decision to send troops and support militias in the country. With a military victory in sight, Russian President Vladimir Putin will discuss the conflict Friday with his counterparts from Iran and Turkey.

On Wednesday, the Syrian army fired shells into Idlib, with loud explosions heard at the Turkish border, according to Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper. Aircraft and armored vehicles were moved from major military bases as a precautionary measure in case of airstrikes to punish Assad’s government, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war through activists on the ground, said in an emailed statement.

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