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Mattis issues tough warning to Syria against using chemical weapons

CNN logo CNN 2/2/2018 By Ryan Browne, CNN
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 13: U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during a hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill June 13, 2017 in Washington, DC. Mattis and other Pentagon leaders testified about the proposed FY2018 National Defense Authorization Budget Request. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) © Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 13: U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during a hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill June 13, 2017 in Washington, DC. Mattis and other Pentagon leaders testified about the proposed FY2018 National Defense Authorization Budget Request. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Secretary of Defense James Mattis has warned the Syrian regime against the use of chemical weapons, telling reporters Friday "you have all seen how we reacted to that, so they'd be ill advised to go back to violating the chemical convention."

Mattis was referring to the April 2017 military strike when the US launched Tomahawk missiles against Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of civilians.

Asked if the Syrian regime was using chlorine weapons Mattis said he believed they had done so "repeatedly" but said that the US is "even more concerned about the possibility of Sarin use, the likelihood of Sarin use, and we're looking for the evidence."

Mattis said he does not believe that Syria has kept to the 2013 agreement brokered by the US and Russia that required the Assad regime to relinquish their chemical weapons.

"We think that they did not carry out what they said they would do back when in the previous administration when they were caught using it. Obviously, they didn't, because they used it again during our administration, and that gives us a lot of reason to suspect them, and now we have other reports from the battlefield, from people who claim it's been used, we do not have evidence of it, but we are not refuting them, we are looking for evidence of it, since clearly we are dealing with the Assad regime that has used denial and deceit to hide their outlaw actions."

Mattis acknowledged that the US has not seen direct evidence of the use of Sarin gas but pointed to open source reports.

"I don't have the evidence. What I'm saying is that groups on the ground, NGOs, fighters on the ground have said that Sarin has been used," he said. "We are looking for evidence. I don't have evidence credible or uncredible."

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert on Thursday said the US is "extremely concerned about yet another report of the use of chlorine gas by the Syrian regime to terrorize citizens" in east Ghouta. Nauert said this is the third reported incident in east Ghouta in the last 30 days. "We call on the international community" to hold the responsible parties accountable, Nauert said.

Recent alleged attacks have suggested that Syria continues to produce weapons, US officials told reporters Thursday.

The Assad regime may also be producing new kinds of weapons, the officials said, with the goal either to improve military capability or avoid accountability from the international community, the officials added.

Following the April strike against the regime airbase, Mattis told reporters the regime "the Syrian regime should think long and hard before it again acts so recklessly in violation of international law against the use of chemical weapons," adding, "if they use chemical weapons, they are going to pay a very, very stiff price"

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