French Foreign Ministry: “France does not accept that the convention prohibiting chemical weapons be challenged”
UPDATE 2000 GMT: The Russian Defense Ministry claims that its forces have fired missiles on the area where the Russian Su-25 jet was downed, killing 30 rebels.
UPDATE 1615 GMT: Claims are circulating that rebels have shot down a Russian Su-25 jet in southeast Idlib Province in northwest Syria.
The rebel faction Jaish al-Nasr claimed the downing of the jet.
— Qalaat Al Mudiq (@QalaatAlMudiq) February 3, 2018
Russian warplanes have been carrying out intensive bombing of Idlib Province, killing scores of civilians, as pro-Assad forces have advanced in the southeast to 15 km (9 miles) from the heavily-bombed town of Saraqeb.
France and the US stepped up verbal pressure on Syria’s Assad regime over its chemical attacks on Friday, with Paris saying it is “deeply concerned” and US Defense Secretary James Mattis warning of the regime’s development of sarin and other chemical weapons.
The regime, which killed more than 1,400 people near Damascus with sarin in August 2013, last used the nerve agent in April 2017 when about 92 people were slain in Khan Sheikhoun in northwest Syria. However, it has continued to use chlorine, with three attacks on the East Ghouta area near the capital since January 13.
French officials have tried to regain the initiative since November when Russia, the essential backer of the Assad regime, blocked the extension of inspections which can assign blame for attacks. President Emmanuel Macron has said that Paris could launch unilateral air strikes against targets in Syria if there is a new chemical attack, coordinating any action with Washington.
French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes Von der Muhll said Friday that reports from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons indicated that the regime had not met its commitments, made after the August 2013 sarin attack to deter military intervention against it, to give up all its chemical stocks.
“This gives rise to our deepest concern. France does not accept that the convention prohibiting chemical weapons be challenged,” von der Muhll told reporters. “We are actively working with our partners on this issue and on all reports of new chemical attacks in Syria.”
Mattis added to recent statements of US concern, including by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and calls on Russia to curb the Assad regime; however, he held back from a firm declaration over sarin:
We are even more concerned about the possibility of sarin use, [but] I don’t have the evidence. What I am saying is that other groups on the ground – NGOs, fighters on the ground – have said that sarin has been used, so we are looking for evidence.
In its only deliberate airstrike on regime positions in Syria’s 83-month conflict, US missiles hit Shayrat airbase in April 2017, days after it was used for the Khan Sheikhoun sarin assault. American forces have not responded to the regular chlorine attacks — or the intensive conventional and incendiary bombing — by the Assad regime and Russia.
Turkey: 2 Soldiers Killed in Afrin Offensive
The Turkish military said that two of its soldiers were killed on Friday in the Turkish-rebel offensive on the Kurdish canton of Afrin in northwest Syria.
A statement said one soldier was killed in a clash with the Kurdish militia YPG, while another died during an attack on a Turkish tank.
The statement said another soldier was killed at a border post in Kilis in southern Turkey by YPG fire.
The military asserted that it has “neutralized” 897 enemy troops. It included the Islamic State with the YPG, even though there is no evidence of ISIS presence in Afrin.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told members of his ruling party on Saturday, “We are advancing into Afrin [city center]. We are close.”
The actual advance of the Turkish-rebel offensive, launched 15 days ago, is far more limited. “Operation Olive Branch” has taken some hilltop positions, notably around the town of Rajo, northwest of Afrin.