The United States has told Russia it is ready to take strong military action against Syria if President Bashar al-Assad uses chemical weapons to try to recapture one of his country’s last rebel-held provinces, Bloomberg News is reporting.
Bloomberg reported late on August 24, citing anonymous sources, that U.S. officials claim to have information indicating that Assad may be planning a chemical attack in the northwestern province of Idlib, near Syria's border with Turkey.
It said White House national-security adviser John Bolton at a meeting in Geneva on August 23 told his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, that Washington is prepared to respond with greater military force than it has used in the past to punish Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons.
U.S. President Donald Trump has publicly vowed to strike back at Assad for any use of chemical weapons and has ordered air strikes on two occasions since taking office last year, both in response to incidents in which dozens of Syrian civilians were reported killed in chemical weapons attacks.
Moscow reacted to Bolton's comments on August 25, warning Washington against "reckless" actions in Syria.
"We warn the Americans and their allies against taking new reckless steps in Syria," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted by the state-run RIA Novosti news agency as saying.
The Russian Defense Ministry, meanwhile, claimed that militants in Syria's northwestern Idlib Province were planning a chemical weapons attack in order to blame it on government forces.
Bolton's reported private warning to Patrushev echoes a public statement issued by the United States, Britain, and France earlier this week warning Syria not to use chemical weapons again as it accelerates its campaign to retake Idlib, the last remaining stronghold of Syrian Sunni rebels who have been battling Assad's forces for seven years.
While the United States has staged air strikes in Syria twice in the last year, they apparently did not achieve their goal of disabling Assad's capacity to make and use chemical weapons, Bloomberg reported.
In April 2017, U.S. warships in the Mediterranean Sea fired about 60 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base which had allegedly been used to launch a sarin gas attack on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun. A year later, Britain and France joined the United States in carrying out multiple air strikes against what they said were Syrian chemical weapons facilities.
The previous attacks targeted alleged chemical sites but, according to Bloomberg, Bolton told Petrushev that Trump might order broader attacks against Syrian government targets the next time.
Washington has held Russia partly responsible for Syria's chemical weapons use because Moscow is Syria's biggest ally and it has shielded Damascus from efforts to rein in Assad at the United Nations.
Both Russia and Syria deny Assad has used chemical weapons, despite several instances that were documented by the UN.
Syrian forces, backed by Russian air power, have been deploying around Idlib and waging air raids and artillery attacks in what appears to be preparations for a major assault that Assad has promised in order to retake the province.
Tens of thousands of the rebels in Idlib were transported there from other parts of Syria in the last year under safe passage agreements brokered by Russia as Syrian forces regained control of areas around Damascus and the southern border with Israel and Jordan which were once held by the rebels.
Because they are diehard holdouts from elsewhere around the country, Bloomberg said the rebels that remain in Idlib are now dominated by militants from Al-Qaeda and other extremist Sunni groups.
As Western-backed moderate Sunni rebels have surrendered or retreated in the last year, Washington appears to have given up on its longtime goal of toppling Assad and has focused on two other objectives: stopping any further use of chemical weapons by Assad and curbing Iranian influence in Syria.
The United States still has about 2,000 troops in northeast Syria, allied with Kurdish militia groups that ousted the Islamic State extremist group from Raqqa and the surrounding region, and who now are seeking to establish autonomous rule in talks with Damascus.
Bloomberg reported that the Bolton-Petrushev talks touched on the possible removal of American troops from a military base on the Syria-Iraq border, or their cooperation with Russian forces nearby, but no agreement was reached.
During the talks, Bolton also rejected a Russian proposal for Washington to suspend oil sanctions on Iran as part of a broader settlement in Syria, Bloomberg reported.