By Farah Najjar
Bahrain – Bahrain's interior ministry says a member of security forces has been killed and two others have been wounded after a blast in Diraz, the home village of Shia-Muslim spiritual leader Ayatollah Isa Qassim. The ministry said on its Twitter account on the 18 Jun 17 that "relevant procedures" were being taken following the explosion, which it blamed on "terrorists". There were no more immediate details. Last month, authorities launched a security operation to "maintain public order" in Diraz, where a sit-in by Qassim's supporters had been going on for months. Five people were killed during the police raid on the village, west of the capital, Manama, on the 23 May 17. The government said the aim of that operation was to arrest suspected fighters and others wanted on security charges. At least 286 were detained as they confronted advancing police, who used tear gas and birdshot. Qassim's supporters accused authorities of using excessive force, while a UN human rights chief urged an investigation into the raid, which he called a crackdown on dissent. The operation followed Qassim's sentencing earlier in May to one year in jail, suspended for three years, on charges of corruption. The cleric faces expulsion from the kingdom after authorities revoked his citizenship last year for alleged links to Iran and fomenting violence, charges he has denied.
Iran/Da’esh – Iran's intelligence ministry says its forces have foiled bombings and suicide attacks targeting religious centres after arresting suspected members of a group linked to ISIL, according state television reported. Security forces "were able to arrest a group linked to Da’esh that intended to carry out terror operations in religious cities and (seized) explosive and suicide attack equipment," the state broadcaster IRIB said on the 24 Jun 17. It did not say how many people were held, or where the operation took place. Authorities seized three assault rifles, a machine-gun equipped with a silencer, three suicide belts, as well as explosives and bomb-making equipment, according to the report. Also seized were night vision goggles, three phones for remote detonation and a large amount of bullets, it added. Since the 7 Jun 17 attack, Iranian authorities have carried out several operations inside Iran, detaining dozens of people, and targeting groups suspected of having links to ISIL.
Iran/Human Trafficking – The US State Department published its annual report on human trafficking in the world, confirming that Iran is still ranking third on this list and noting that Tehran has not done anything to curb this phenomenon it was reported on the 28 Jun 17. During the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report 2017 launch, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that “thousands of women and children in different parts of the world are being trafficked, which is a form of modern slavery.” The report’s launch was attended by President Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka. According to ‘Agence France Presse’, the State Department report indicated the levels of human trafficking in the world, and stated that there are countries recognizing the existence of the problem on their territories and seeking to solve it, while others recognized but did not take any step to reduce or eradicate this problem. The third group of countries includes those that neither recognize nor seek to resolve the human trafficking crisis, including Iran, Russia, Syria and Venezuela. The US report criticized Iran’s exploitation of the trafficking victims, including children, by sending them to fight in Syria and Iraq. Iranian agencies admit that thousands of Afghans and Pakistanis have been sent to Syria under the “religious defenders” slogan, and Iran announces their death after being killed in these two countries by the Syrian armed opposition. The report also said that “Iran must respect international laws and deploy more efforts to uncover trafficking networks and sex slavery.” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson revealed that there were 20 million victims of human trafficking around the world. He criticized the Pyongyang government saying that “tens of thousands of North Korean workers are working long hours in China and their salaries go to the Pyongyang government.” The report, which included this year 187 countries and regions, including the United States, is helping US authorities identify the risks so that authorities can deal effectively with them.
Iran/United States/Middle East – The Iranian regime bears historic responsibility for the instability and crisis in the region today and Tehran has been responsible for a series of deadly terrorist attacks against the United States, a bipartisan group of former American officials has said on the 29 Jun 17. The 30-member delegation also expressed solidarity with thousands of Iranians gathered in Paris on the 1 Jul 17 for the annual rally of the Iranian opposition. “The regime has preserved its grip on power for 38 years due to widespread repression and blatant disregard for human rights at home and the export of extremism and terrorism abroad,” said a statement. As per the statement, the Iran-fuelled sectarian division of Iraq laid the foundation for the creation of ISIS. “Direct Iranian armed intervention in Syria bears the prime responsibility for blocking the UN’s political transition process that might have halted the carnage in Syria led by Iran’s ally Bashar al Assad,” it said adding that Iran today commands and funds upwards of 150,000 IRGC, Shiite militia and mercenary armed fighters in Iraq and Syria, preventing both countries from achieving stability under legitimate constitutional government that respects the rights of all citizens. The delegation also said that they agree with the apparent new US policy of ending the previous United States overture toward the Iranian regime while holding Iran to its nuclear commitments, and believe an approach based on the historic experience and realities in the region is essential. “As part of a new approach every effort must be made to end the Iranian regime’s meddling in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and other countries of the region,” it added. We believe that change is within reach, not only because the regime is becoming engulfed in crisis, but also because there is a large and growing movement organizing for positive change. A viable organization capable of ending the nightmare of religious dictatorship by establishing freedom and democracy, tolerance, and gender equality has steadily gained visibility, popular support and international recognition, said the statement. Signatories to the statement include Newt Gingrich, Former Speaker of the House, John Bolton, Former UN Ambassador, Rudy Giuliani, Former NYC Mayor, General George Casey, Former US Army Chief of Staff and Commander of Multi-National Forces in Iraq, and Joseph I. Lieberman – Former Connecticut Senator.
Iran/ANALYSIS: Are Iran’s Revolutionary Guards ready to take control? By Tony Duheaume (01Jul 17) – At the time Ruhollah Khomeini seized power, millions of Iranians had suffered years of hardship under the rule of the country’s former leader Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the infamous Shah of Iran whose violent regime had used every form of oppression to keep them in line. No sooner had Khomeini taken control, Iranians filled the streets of Tehran to welcome him as their new leader, ready to give unquestionable loyalty to the man promising to release them from the yoke of tyranny. Right from the start of his rule, Khomeini lost no time in fortifying his position, and with his new-found power based just like that of his predecessor on extreme violence, guns and the destruction of any political force that opposed him, Khomeini went about constructing a ruthless state security apparatus. This deadly force was named by Khomeini as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – a powerful armed Praetorian Guard that would keep him in power at any cost. Since the day the IRGC was founded, it has never been as dangerous as it is today. As due to the death of so-called “moderate” leader Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president of Iran, who became chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council as well as a president of the Assembly of Experts, both of which are politically influential groups in Iran, the pragmatic Rafsanjani had spent his final years ensuring the country’s political balance was carefully managed between the hawks and the moderates, keeping the IRGC’s power diluted. So with Rafsanjani now out of the picture, it has strengthened the hand of the ultra-right wing IRGC commanders, who unlike Rafsanjani, would rather see war with the West than peace. The Assembly of experts has the key role of nominating the new Supreme Leader in the eventuality of the ruling leader’s death, and with Rafsanjani having been determined to curtail the powers of the IRGC; he would have been looking towards any future Supreme Leader, being a person who shared his views. But now that Rafsanjani has gone, he has left behind him a more hard-line Assembly of experts, which is likely to be more conciliatory towards candidates favoured by the Guards.
With Rafsanjani being chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council, this also put him in a very good position where curtailing the power of the IRGC was concerned, as not only did the Council act as a mediator between the Iranian Parliament and the Council of Guardians, giving him a great deal of leverage over solving disputes concerning executive, judiciary and legislative powers, the Council also acted as a trusted advisor to the Supreme Leader, putting Rafsanjani in a very good position to advise on the shaping of future policy. With the IRGC’s involvement in international terrorism already proven through its sister organization the Quds Force, which since the 1980s has trained, armed and financed its terror proxy Hezbollah and others, to carry out attacks on its behalf, it now needs to be reigned in more than ever. With the latest revelations exposed by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, revealing the extent of the IRGC’s vast arms smuggling network, Donald Trump needs to act fast to designate the group as a terrorist organization. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps was created in the wake of the 1979 revolution, to protect Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, as having overthrown Shah Pahlavi in a blood-soaked coup, Khomeini needed a praetorian guard like that of Adolf Hitler’s Schutzstaffel (SS), to protect him from inside forces who were once allies, but were now out to remove him, after realising they had taken part in an armed struggle to install yet another brutal dictator. So, to protect his newly-formed Islamic state from being overthrown in a counter revolution, Khomeini formed the IRGC, and at was at this point, the real bloodletting began. Throughout the armed struggle to overthrow the Shah, many of the revolutionary groups that had aided Khomeini in his quest for power, had turned against him, after realizing his true brutal character, and such was his fear of being removed, Khomeini had sent his death squads out onto the streets to eliminate all who opposed him, in a crackdown that would cost the lives of tens of thousands of dissidents.
In great fear of the IRGC
The IRGC has always been under the direct control of the Supreme Leader, its commanders taking orders from him alone, and as such, with the IRGC being an elite force that is completely independent from the regular armed forces, the Supreme Leader felt protected should the regular army rebel against him. With the Guards having always been supplied with the most advanced weaponry, it is also in charge of all military projects from that of light armaments to the acquisition of nuclear weapons, and on top of its military role, has been afforded great political power. So, because of the IRGC’s vast superiority on all fronts; the regular army is in great fear of it, and not powerful enough to rise up against it. Until now, the new Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has managed to keep the Guards on side, rewarding its commanders by allowing them full control of the underground economy during the period that Iran had heavy economic sanctions slapped on it, and through sanction busting, the Guards had made billions from smuggling everything from cigarettes to drugs. During 2015, Iran’s shadow economy was estimated to be around $100 billion, and so the Guard’s cut of that would been an astronomic sum. As far as power is concerned, the IRGC’s military strength has increased incredibly through cash siphoned through to it from the Iran Deal, its political clout has been strengthened over the past years through Khamenei courting commanders with seats in parliament, as well as through the gift of ownership of various top Iranian businesses, including those in the defence industry.
Under the auspices of the Quds Force
So not only is the IRGC a powerful military force, which has kept control of the streets of Iran through its vicious Basij paramilitary force, it also commands a massive terrorist army under the auspices of its Quds Force, which controls Iran’s terror proxy Hezbollah, a group with tentacles stretching across the globe, with connections to the world’s most powerful criminal organizations, and sleeper cells set up on most continents, which it has used to control its own vast criminal empire. Everything the IRGC does, has always been connected to its remit which was put in place by its founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which is to protect the ongoing revolution by building a defence force that encompasses the whole of the Iran, and in an effort to spread revolution abroad, a powerful military force was also needed to cause upheaval in foreign lands, using proxy terror forces if necessary. So where disrupting foreign governments is concerned, which is often done through the infiltration of political groups in Shia areas of targeted nations, this is carried out by the IRGC’s sister group the Quds Force, which is the overseas arm of the IRGC, charged with subversion abroad, as well as executing foreign military campaigns. With the tightening of economic sanctions by the incoming US administration of Donald Trump, plus the fact that there could be plans in the future to outlaw the IRGC, this could make the Guards even more belligerent than they already are. With their powerful influence in countries like Syria, Iraq and Yemen likely to increase, not only would they have plenty of springboards with which to use as areas to harbour troops, and cause further instability in neighbouring countries, they would also have the ability to control a variety of international waterways with which to cause havoc through the intimidation of ships travelling through them. Such intimidation is likely to disrupt billions of dollars of trade along watercourse trade routes, but it would also allow the IRGC and its proxy forces the ability to use the borders of countries they have commandeered to carry out subversive activity.
Taking to the streets
In the past, the IRGC has been kept in check by powerful personalities such as Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, but with so many hardliners now backing the Guards, should tension with the West increase dramatically, and should the Iranian people revolt in great numbers over the fact that Iran’s economy is being strangled once again due to renewed sanctions, which would impact terribly on the already shrunken economy, leaving ordinary citizens in even more dire straits than they already are, more people than ever are likely to take to the streets due to their ever-shrinking incomes. Then, with the Iranian administration severely weakened, it could find itself facing another revolution, which would cause the IRGC to step in. Should this come about, Iran would fall under the grip of an extremely dangerous government-directed terrorist entity, which not only has a series of powerful conventional weapons under its control, but also possesses chemical weapons, as well as being on the verge of completing a nuclear weapon, and has missiles with which to deliver them. It is now time for the world to realize, such an event is virtually inevitable, and the time has come to rein in the IRGC before it is too late, as the “Chamberlain moment” for “Peace in Our Time” has long past, and a road to war could soon be facing us.
Iraq/Mosul/Da’esh – The landmark Grand al-Nuri Mosque of Mosul and its leaning minaret have been blown up, with the Iraqi army blaming ISIL for its destruction and the armed group accusing a US-led coalition air raid a report stated on the 22 Jun 17. In recent days Iraqi forces have pushed deeper into the last remaining areas held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group in the centre of Iraq's second-largest city. "Our forces were advancing toward their targets deep in the Old City and when they got to within 50 metres of the Nuri mosque, Da’esh committed another historical crime by blowing up the Nuri mosque," Staff Lieutenant General Abdulamir Yarallah, the overall commander of the Mosul offensive, said in a statement. In a statement on its Amaq website, ISIL blamed US aircraft for destroying the mosque. The US military denied the allegation. "We did not strike in that area," coalition spokesman US Air Force Colonel John Dorrian. The Grand al-Nuri Mosque was where ISIL's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made a rare appearance in June 2014 and gave a speech while standing at a pulpit to proclaim the creation of a "caliphate". US Army Major-General Joseph Martin said the mosque destruction showed ISIL's brutality. "The responsibility of this devastation is laid firmly at the doorstep of ISIS," said Martin in a statement. "This is a crime against the people of Mosul and all of Iraq, and is an example of why this brutal organisation must be annihilated." Iraqis lovingly call the minaret Al-Hadba, or "the hunchback". The mosque is named after Nuruddin al-Zanki, a noble who fought the early crusaders from a fiefdom that covered territory in modern-day Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The mosque was built in 1172-73, shortly before his death, and housed an Islamic school. Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi denounced the destruction, saying it was a "declaration of defeat" by ISIL. The fall of Mosul would, in effect, mark the end of the Iraqi half of the "caliphate", even though ISIL would continue to control territory west and south of the city, the largest they had control of in both Iraq and Syria. Baghdadi has left the fighting in Mosul to local commanders and is believed to be hiding in the border area between Iraq and Syria, according to US and Iraqi military sources.
Israel/Syria – Syria's army has warned Israel against "serious repercussions" of further attacks on the Arab country following airstrikes conducted against its territory. The Syrian military issued the warning on the 25 Jun 17 after Israel launched airstrikes on the Golan Heights for the second day at the exact time Nusra Front terrorists launched an offensive in the area. In a statement, the Syrian army's General Command described the attacks as a "desperate attempt" to support terrorist groups. Officials have already accused Israel of effectively providing air cover for the Takfiri terrorists. The army warned against the risks posed by such hostile acts, adding it "holds the Israeli enemy responsible for the serious repercussions if such acts reoccur under any pretext." The statement further stressed the Syrian army's determination to crush the terrorist groups, "which are the Israeli enemy's proxy in the area." The airstrikes came after stray artillery shells allegedly landed in the Golan Heights, a fertile Syrian plateau which is occupied by Israel. This is a common reaction by Israel to stray shells, which it has used to repeatedly attack the Syrian military over the course of the protracted war within the Arab country. Israel is known to be providing aid, including medical treatment, to terrorists in this area. A military source said on the 24 Jun 17 that the Syrian army and allied forces had repelled a massive assault by the al-Nusra terrorists near al-Baath City in southern Quneitra Province and inflicted heavy losses on them. The source said an Israeli warplane conducted air raids on a parking lot and a residential building in the same area as a counterterrorism operation got underway, killing civilians and causing material damage. The Israeli army claimed its strikes had targeted Syria's military installations in response to an alleged firing of 10 projectiles from the Arab country at the occupied territories. The Syrian government says Tel Aviv and its Western and regional allies are aiding Takfiri militant groups wreaking havoc in the country. Israel regularly hits positions held by the Syrian army in the Golan Heights, describing the attacks as retaliatory. Syria says the raids aim to help Takfiri militants fighting against government forces. On several occasions, the Syrian army has confiscated Israeli-made arms and military equipment from terrorists fighting the government forces. There are also reports that Israel has been providing medical treatment to the extremists wounded in Syria. Last week, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres expressed concerns about a spike in contacts between Israeli armed forces and Syria militants in recent months, saying it could lead to escalation and cause harm to UN observers deployed to the Golan Heights. The Wall Street Journal recently said Israel has been providing Takfiri terrorists in Syria's Golan Heights with a steady flow of funds and medical supplies.
Lebanon – Five suicide bombers attacked Lebanese soldiers as they raided two Syrian refugee camps in the Arsal area at the border with Syria on the 30 Jul 17 and a sixth militant threw a hand grenade at a patrol, the army said. The army said seven soldiers were wounded and a girl was killed after one of the suicide bombers blew himself up in the midst of a family of refugees. It did not elaborate. The raids were part of a major security sweep by the army in an area that has been a flashpoint for violent spill over from the Syria crisis, and several Islamic State officials were among some 350 people detained, a security source said. The defence minister was quoted as saying the incident showed the importance of tackling the refugee crisis - Lebanon is hosting over 1 million refugees - and vindicated a policy of "pre-emptive strikes" against militant sleeper cells. Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which backs Syrian President Bashar al Assad in his fight against insurgents, said the raids complemented its own fighters' campaign to stop militants entering Lebanon from Syria. "What is needed today is to unify efforts more and more to fill all the gaps that terrorists can infiltrate from to protect Lebanon and its people from the big dangers that target it," the Hezbollah statement said. There has been frequent fighting between the army and militants dug into the hills around Arsal in a large pocket of territory straddling the border. A Lebanese army statement said one suicide bomber had detonated his explosive laden belt in front of an army patrol during a manhunt for suspected militants in a refugee camp in the north-eastern border town. Three soldiers were wounded. The army said four other suicide bombers blew themselves up without causing any injuries among soldiers, while another militant threw a grenade at a patrol, wounding four soldiers. During the raids an explosive device blew up while four other explosive devices were defused, it said.
Qatar/Hezbollah – According to warnings from security experts, the exemption of Lebanese citizens from pre-entry visas to Qatar may have negative consequences that would affect Qataris and the region it was reported on the 28 Jun 17. Arab political and media circles fear further interference from Hezbollah members through Qatar to shake the stability of the Gulf region. The same sources also warned of Qatar's intentions to open the door to Hezbollah militias and their allies and recruit them to work under the name of the Qatari army. The Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani had said in statements which were later denied by Doha that Hezbollah is a resistance movement despite being classified as a terrorist group in the Gulf. However, the relationship between Qatar and Hezbollah has not been interrupted over the past years, but has remained open through links to the Nusra Front in Syria and the Popular Mobilization Militias in Iraq. The Secretary-General of the Arab Islamic Council, Muhammad Ali al-Husseini, said that the Qatari decision is considered a security threat to the region. Al-Husseini said in a statement to the Saudi newspaper Al-Riyadh that Doha is risking that Hezbollah would push its supporters to flow to Qatar. He did not rule out the possibility of Hezbollah carrying out specific tasks related to the current status of Gulf relations. He also pointed out that Hezbollah will work to penetrate Qatar’s security and political scene in order to take advantage of the Gulf dispute, and target neighboring countries. King Saud Political Science Professor Adil Al-Mekenzi told Al-Watan newspaper that Hezbollah is exploiting opportunities to destabilize the Gulf.
Saudi Arabia – Saudi security forces on the 23 Jun 17 foiled a suicide attack on the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, cornering the would-be attacker in an apartment, where he blew himself up, the Interior Ministry said. In a statement read on state television, the ministry said that three cells had planned the attack on worshippers and security forces at the mosque as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan nears its climax. The trapped would-be suicide bomber exchanged fire with the security forces, then set off explosives when he was surrounded in a house in the central Mecca neighbourhood of Ajyad al-Masafi near the mosque that had been used as the base for the attack, the ministry said. The building collapsed, injuring six foreigners and five members of the security forces. Earlier in the day, security forces had shot dead a wanted man at another suspected Islamist militant hideout in Mecca's al-Aseelah neighbourhood. The ministry also said a third cell had been broken up in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, but gave no further details. Five suspected militants including a woman were arrested, it said. The month of fasting ends with the Eid-al-Fitr holiday, on the 25 Jun 17. Saudi monarchs usually spend the last 10 days of Ramadan in Mecca. It was not immediately clear who was behind the plot to attack the mosque, but the Islamic State group had in the past carried out attacks in the kingdom. In May 16 Saudi security forces shot dead two alleged Islamic State fighters outside Mecca, and two others blew themselves up outside Mecca.
Syria/United States – A US fighter jet has shot down a Syrian government plane in Syria's Raqqa province, officials from both sides have said on the 19 Jun 17. The US-led coalition on the 18 Jun 17 said it downed the plane after it dropped bombs on American-backed forces fighting ISIL in northern Syria. Yet, the Syrian army said its jet was on a combat mission against the armed group's fighters near the city of Raqqa, ISIL's de-facto capital in Syria. The incident came as a monitoring group reported the first ground fighting between Syrian government troops and the US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters. "At 1843 hrs local (1743 hrs GMT), a Syrian regime SU-22 dropped bombs near SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) fighters south of Tabqa and, in accordance with rules of engagement and in collective self-defence of Coalition partnered forces, was immediately shot down by a US F/A-18E Super Hornet," the Combined Joint Task Force said in a statement. It said that two hours earlier, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad attacked SDF fighters in the town of Ja'Din south of Tabqa, "wounding a number of SDF fighters and driving the SDF from the town". Coalition aircraft then stopped the pro-government forces' initial advance with a "show of force", the coalition said, adding that it does "not seek to fight the Syrian regime, Russian or pro-regime forces" but would not "hesitate to defend itself or its "partnered forces from any threat". Earlier on the 18 Jun 17 the Syrian army said that "the so-called international alliance today noon targeted the jet over the area of al-Rasafa in the southern countryside of al-Raqqa while it was on a combat mission against the terrorist Da’esh. The pilot of the jet went missing after this "flagrant aggression", the army's command added in a statement, according to Syria's state news agency SANA. The US-led coalition has in recent weeks escalated its aerial bombing campaign in northern Syria and Raqqa province. US-backed forces have encircled the city of Raqqa and captured several districts from ISIL fighters. The Syrian army has also taken territory from retreating ISIL fighters in the western Raqqa countryside and seized back some oil fields and villages that had been under the group's control for almost three years. Following the downing of the Syrian plane, clashes between government troops and coalition-backed fighters broke out in two villages some 40km south of the city of Raqqa, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Syria – At least 10 civilians have been killed and 30 others injured in a car bombing in Idlib, an opposition-held city in north-western Syria, according to a monitoring group. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said the bombing targeted a market in the town of Dana, on the outskirts of Idlib, on the 24 Jun 17. At the time of reporting there was no claim of responsibility. However, a local opposition source told DPA that "sleeper cells" linked to the Da’esh group were behind the bombing. Idlib is controlled by armed groups, including al-Qaeda-linked fighters, who are at odds with both the Syrian government and Da’esh.
Syria/United States – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be preparing a chemical-weapons attack that would result in the "mass murder" of civilians, the White House has said while warning Syria's government that it would pay a "heavy price" if it goes ahead. The White House on the 26 Jun 17 said US intelligence observed potential preparations similar to those in the run-up to a deadly chemical attack on the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Apr 17 that the US blamed on Assad's forces. More than 70 people were killed in that attack, including many children. The US launched missile strikes against a Syrian air base in response. "The United States has identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime that would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children," Sean Spicer, White House spokesperson, said in a statement. "The activities are similar to preparations the regime made before its 4 Apr 17 chemical weapons attack." Assad has strongly denied the allegation that his forces used chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, describing it as a "100 percent fabrication". Natasha Ghoneim, reporting from Gaziantep for al-Jazeera, said the public warning even took some military leaders in the US by surprise. "Analysts have said that it is not common for [the White House] to make a public warning like this instead of through diplomatic channels," she said. For their part, Syrian activists are asking why the US is merely issuing a warning instead of acting if they really believe a chemical attack is imminent, she said. Assad has said repeatedly that his forces turned over all chemical weapons stockpiles in 2013, under a deal brokered by Russia to avoid threatened US military action. The agreement was later enshrined in a UN Security Council resolution. However, Jim Mattis, the US defence secretary, has previously said that there is "no doubt" that Syria has in fact retained some chemical weapons. Human Rights Watch, the US rights organisation, said in May that Syrian forces used nerve gas in four attacks since December - part of a "clear pattern" that could amount to war crimes. "As we have previously stated, the United States is in Syria to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria," Spicer said in his statement. "If, however, Mr Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price."
Follow-on Report (28 Dec 17): U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has said that Syria appears to have heeded a U.S. warning against launching a new chemical attack, as Russia accused the United States of "bellicose rhetoric." "It appears that they took the warning seriously," Mattis told reporters on the 28 Jun 17 who were flying with him to Brussels for a meeting of NATO defence ministers the next day. "They didn't do it." The Pentagon said that activity was detected at the Syrian Army's Shayrat airfield. And the White House said similar activities had been seen before the nerve agent Sarin was allegedly dropped on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun on the 4 Apr 17. The Damascus government denied that it was preparing a chemical attack. President Bashar al-Assad has previously said the Khan Sheikhoun incident was fabricated. Iran accused the United States of a "dangerous escalation" in Syria, while the Kremlin denounced Washington's "unacceptable threats." Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron agreed with Trump in a phone call on the 27 Jun 17 on "the need to work on a joint response in the event of a chemical attacks in Syria," the French presidency said. U.S. forces have increased their presence in Syria to about 1,000 in recent months as the Pentagon steps up its campaign against the Islamic State (IS) extremist group. But the U.S. forces have increasingly clashed with Iran-backed forces operating in the same battle space. The White House made it clear that the latest warning against Syrian chemical attacks was not aimed only at Assad but targeted his allies as well. "The goal is at this point not just to send Assad a message, but to send Russia and Iran a message," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said. Assad did not respond to the U.S. warnings as he toured an air base in western Syria that hosts Russian aircraft and troops on the 27 Jun 17. Accompanied by the Russian Army's chief of staff, General Valery Gerasimov, Assad climbed into the cockpit of a Russian Su-35 fighter jet. "The Syrian people will not forget the support of their Russian brothers," Assad wrote in the visitors' book at the Hmeimim base.