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Macron's 'red line': France will strike Syria chemical arms sites in event of attack

And the US says if UN fails to act on Syria, it is prepared to 'if we must'
The site of an alleged sarin attack in Idlib last year (Reuters)

France is prepared to launch targeted strikes against any site in Syria used to deploy chemical attacks that result in the deaths of civilians, President Emmanuel Macron said.

Shortly before the United Nations was due to discuss Syria, Macron said Moscow, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, had not done enough to permit relief efforts into the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta.

Asked about the Syrian conflict at a news conference in India, Macron said France would be ready to strike if it found "irrefutable evidence" chemical weapons had been used to kill.

MEE reported in February that the US was considering new military strikes against Syrian government positions, and that France was keen to support the operation, according to diplomatic sources.

"The day we have, in particular in tandem with our American partners, irrefutable proof that the red line was crossed - namely the chemical weapons were used to lethal effect - we will do what the Americans themselves did moreover a few months ago; we would put ourselves in position to proceed with targeted strikes," Macron said on Monday.

Speaking several hours later, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley warned if the UN Security Council fails to act on Syria, Washington "remains prepared to act if we must," just as it did last year when it fired missiles at a Syrian government air base over a deadly chemical weapons attack.

"It is not the path we prefer, but it is a path we have demonstrated we will take, and we are prepared to take again," Haley told the Security Council.

New red line?

The French leader has made the threat before but has so far made little headway influencing events in Syria.

Syria signed a Russian-brokered deal to give up its arsenal of chemical weapons to avert US air strikes after a nerve gas attack killed hundreds of people in 2013. Last year, the United States again accused Damascus of using nerve gas and launched air strikes.

Since then, Washington has repeatedly accused Damascus of using chlorine gas in attacks. Chlorine is far less deadly than nerve agents and possession of it is allowed for civilian purposes, but its use as a weapon is banned.

It is not the path we prefer, but it is a path we have demonstrated we will take, and we are prepared to take again

- Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to UN

Damascus and Moscow have been carrying out a fierce bombing campaign and ground assault against the besieged rebel-held Eastern Ghouta enclave since mid-February, despite a UN Security Council resolution calling for a countrywide ceasefire.

"This is a debate we will have in the coming hours at the United Nations, where it will be shown that the concessions on the ground from Russia, but first and foremost the Syrian regime and its Iranian allies, are insufficient," Macron said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday that about 511,000 people have been killed since the Syrian war began seven years ago.

New ceasefire urged

Haley's warning came as the United States asked the Security Council to demand an immediate 30-day ceasefire in Damascus and rebel-held eastern Ghouta, where government forces, backed by Russia and Iran, say they are targeting "terrorist" groups which are shelling the capital.

The Security Council demanded a 30-day ceasefire across Syria in a unanimously adopted resolution on 24 February. Russia had said the Security Council could not impose a ceasefire without a deal between the warring parties.

Meanwhile, Syrian jets struck rebel-held towns in the country's south on Monday, the first aerial attacks on the area since Washington and Moscow reached an agreement making it a "de-escalation zone" last year, rebels and residents said.

At least eight raids struck the rebel-held towns of Busr al-Harir, Hrak, al-Gharaiya al-Gharbiya and al-Sowara in rural areas in eastern Daraa province in southern Syria, two rebel officials told Reuters.

Worries are growing in Jordan and Western powers that the Syrian army will press on with a major assault to regain the south if it retakes Eastern Ghouta, two senior Western diplomats said.

The United States has called an urgent meeting in Jordan out of concern about reports of strikes in southwestern Syria.

“We urge all parties in the southwest de-escalation zone not to take actions that would jeopardise the ceasefire and make future cooperation more difficult,” the statement said. “We have called an urgent meeting in Jordan to review the situation in southwest Syria and ensure maintenance of the de-escalation zone that the United States helped negotiate.”

One rebel commander said the strikes in the south appeared to be a warning to rebels under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) umbrella, who were planning to wage an offensive in coming days to relieve pressure on their comrades in Eastern Ghouta.

Another rebel official said FSA factions were already mobilising fighters for a possible wider showdown.

"I can say all the factions in the south are in a state of full readiness and alertness with all their equipment and fighting force," said Khaled al-Faraj, the commander of a rebel group operating in Quneitra province.

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