The Syrian army claimed Thursday that an airstrike conducted by a U.S.-led coalition struck a chemical weapons facility used by the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians due to toxic fumes. The U.S. dismissed the reports as false.
In an official statement, Syria's General Command of the Army and Armed Forces said that the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS struck a headquarters of the jihadist group in the village of Hatila near the eastern city of Deir al-Zour. The airstrike caused "a white cloud that turned yellow" after an explosion rocked "a huge warehouse containing a large amount of toxic substances."
"This incident confirms the possession of chemical weapons by terrorist organizations, particularly ISIS and the Nusra Front as well as their ability to obtain, transfer, stockpile and use them with the help of known countries in the region," the army wrote in a statement. "This is what Syria warned of every time terrorist groups used chemical weapons against civilians and the Syrian Arab Armed Forces. It confirms that there is coordination between these terrorist organizations and the forces supporting them to find excuses and accusations of the Syrian Arab Army using chemical weapons."
U.S. Air Force Colonel John Dorrian, a spokesperson for the coalition, denied the reports and said the coalition had not conducted any airstrikes in the area. He indicated that the Syrian army may have deliberately proliferated false information after the U.S. blamed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for a previous incident involving toxic substances. "The Syrian claim is incorrect and likely intentional misinformation," Dorrian told Reuters.
Last week, the U.S. and a number of other Western and allied nations accused the Syrian government of conducting a chemical weapons attack near the rebel-held city of Idlib in northwestern Syria, killing dozens of civilians. The Syrian army and its Russian ally claimed the chemical discharge was the result of a Syrian airstrike on hidden chemical weapons stockpiles held by rebels in the region. The U.S. responded on Friday by launching a barrage of Tomahawk missiles on an airbase in central Syria. President Donald Trump's decision to attack the base marked the first intentional U.S. strike on the Syrian military since the nation's conflict began in 2011.
In an interview Thursday with the Agence France-Presse, Assad called reports that the Syrian army conducted a chemical attack a "100 percent fabrication." Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia's defense ministry released statements Tuesday saying they believed Syrian rebels, including ISIS and Al-Qaeda, possessed chemical weapons and intended on staging attacks to frame Assad and draw the U.S. into the conflict.
The U.S. did at one point support various Syrian rebel groups, but largely withdrew its backing after opposition forces became infiltrated by groups allied to ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other jihadist organizations. The U.S. has since switched the focus of its mission in Syria to defeating ISIS and shifted its support to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a majority-Kurd coalition of Arabs and ethnic minorities in Syria that has displayed ambivalence to the battle between the government and rebel groups.
The Syrian army's report came the same day as the U.S. military admitted that a U.S.-led coalition airstrike accidentally hit allied positions in northern Syria, killing 18 members of the SDF. In a press release, U.S. Strategic Command said the airstrike had been requested by "partnered forces" who believed the position was being held by militants loyal to ISIS.
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