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Pentagon, White House Confer on Military Options in Syria
By Nancy A. Youssef

NEW DELHI -- The top U.S. military commander said Saturday he is engaged in "routine dialogue" with the White House about options should the Syrian government use chemical weapons in an expected assault on the northern rebel stronghold in the province of Idlib.

President Trump "has been clear on the consequences for the use of chemical weapons," Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters. "He expects us to have military options, and we have provided updates to him on the development of those military options," Gen. Dunford said.

The general's comments come amid mounting concerns that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, will launch a major offensive on Idlib, the last major enclave of opposition and extremist groups. Syria denies it has used chemical weapons, and Russia has said the U.S. is seeking a pretext for a strike against Assad regime forces.

On Friday, the leaders of Turkey, Iran and Russia held a summit in Tehran but failed to reach an agreement, with Russia and Iran rejecting Turkey's cease-fire offer.

Turkish officials have said they oppose an offensive in Idlib, fearing a flow of refugees into their country and more instability on their southern border.

"It certainly is disappointing but perhaps not surprising that the Russians, the Turks and the Iranians weren't able to come up with a solution," Gen. Dunford said.

A battle for Idlib province would mark the final push by regime forces and allies against their opponents in the seven-year civil war. Thousands of rebel and jihadist group members are in the province, many of them part of an al Qaeda offshoot. There also are suspected members of Islamic State extremist group there.

The Trump administration has conducted two strikes in Syria in response to chemical attacks since April 2017. Gen. Dunford said the scope of a third strike, if necessary, would be determined by the White House and likely would be shaped by several factors. The scale and scope of any chemical attack by the regime "would inform the response," he said.

"The decision to employ military force in response to chemical weapons hasn't been made, but we are in a dialogue, a routine dialogue, with the president to make sure he knows where we are with regard to planning in the event that chemical weapons are used," Gen. Dunford said.

This week, there have been a spate of airstrikes in Idlib province. In recent weeks, Syrian forces have been gathering on the province's southern border and Russia has moved ships into the area.


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