U.S. has seen proof Syria is preparing chemical weapons in Idlib, envoy says

There is "lots of evidence" that chemical weapons are being prepared by Syrian government forces in Idlib in northwest Syria, the new U.S. adviser for Syria says, warning of the risks of an offensive on the country's last big rebel enclave.

Jim Jeffrey says Washington has 'very good grounds' to issue warning ahead of likely Syrian offensive

A boy tries on an improvised gas mask in Idlib, Syria, on Monday. Idlib and its surroundings are now the only significant area of the country where armed opposition to Damascus remains. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

There is "lots of evidence" that chemical weapons are being prepared by Syrian government forces in Idlib in northwest Syria, the new U.S. adviser for Syria said on Thursday, warning of the risks of an offensive on the country's last big rebel enclave.

"I am very sure that we have very, very good grounds to be making these warnings," said Jim Jeffrey, who was named on Aug. 17 as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's special adviser on Syria overseeing talks on a political transition in that country.

"Any offensive is to us objectionable as a reckless escalation," Jeffrey told a few reporters in his first interview on the situation in Syria since his appointment. "There is lots of evidence that chemical weapons are being prepared."

The White House has warned that the United States and its allies would respond "swiftly and vigorously" if government forces used chemical weapons in the widely expected offensive.

Jeffrey said an attack by Russian and Syrian forces, and the use of chemical weapons, would force huge refugee flows into southeastern Turkey or areas in Syria under Turkish control.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has massed his army and allied forces on the front lines in the northwest, and Russian planes have joined his bombardment of rebels there, in a prelude to a possible assault.

Leaders fail to agree on ceasefire

The presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia on Friday failed to agree on a ceasefire that would forestall a Syrian government offensive in rebel-held Idlib.

Turkey's Tayyip Erdogan, Russia's Vladimir Putin and Iran's Hassan Rouhani — meeting in Tehran for a summit of key foreign players in Syria's war — agreed in a final statement that there could be no military solution to the conflict and it could only end through a negotiated political process.

But as Syrian government and Russian warplanes mounted air strikes in Idlib on Friday morning in a possible prelude to a full-scale offensive, Putin and Rouhani pushed back against Erdogan's call for a truce.

A UN team takes samples from the scene of a suspected chemical weapon attack, in the Damascus countryside in August 2013. (United Media Office of Arbeen/Associated Press)

The Turkish leader said he feared a massacre and Turkey could not accommodate any more refugees flooding over its border.

Putin said a ceasefire would be pointless as it would not involve Islamist militant groups it deems terrorists. Rouhani said Syria must regain control over all its territory.

​In the final statement, the three agreed on the need to eliminate the Islamic State, the Nusra Front, and other groups linked to extremist groups and designated as terrorists. But there were were other armed opposition groups that could join any ceasefire agreement, they said.

The communiqué also called on the United Nations and the international community to step up humanitarian aid to Syria and help in restoring basic infrastructure assets.

Efforts must be made to protect and to create conditions for the safe return of refugees, it added.

Diplomatic initiative

As sides close in on the remaining jihadist forces operating in Syria, Jeffrey said it was time for a "major diplomatic initiative" to end the seven-year conflict. There was a "a new commitment" by the administration to remain in Syria until Islamic State militants were defeated, while ensuring Iran left the country, he added.

While U.S. President Donald Trump had signalled that he wanted American forces out of Syria, in April he agreed to keep troops there a little longer.

Trump will chair a UN Security Council meeting on Iran during an annual gathering of world leaders in New York later this month. The meeting will focus on Iran's nuclear program and its meddling in the wars in Syria and Yemen.

France has invited the United States, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Germany and Britain for talks on the sidelines of the UN meeting to discuss Syria, Jeffrey said.

He said Assad "has no future as a ruler" in Syria, but it was not up to Washington to get rid of him and it would work with Moscow on a political transition.

"Right now [the Syrian government] is a cadaver sitting in rubble with just half the territory of Syria under regime control on a good day," Jeffrey said.