Dozens killed in ISIL ‘prison’ air strike as Assad denies chemical plot​

The strike came one day after the White House said the Syrian government may be preparing for another chemical weapons attack and warning Syrian president Bashar Al Assad that he and his military would pay “a heavy price” if one occurred.

A handout picture released on the official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency on June 27, 2017, showing Bashar Al Assad sitting inside a Sukhoi Su-27 during his visit to the Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria. Syrian Presidency Facebook page / AFP
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BEIRUT // Dozens of civilians were killed in a US-led anti-ISIL coalition air strike in eastern Syria on Tuesday as tensions between Washington and Damascus rose significantly over allegations that Syria could be preparing for a new chemical weapons attack.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a coalition air strike hit a building in the town of Al Mayadeen — about 47 kilometres south-east of Deir Ezzor — that was being used by ISIL as a prison, killing 42 people. The US said it would investigate the claims.

The strike came one day after the White House said the Syrian government may be preparing for another chemical weapons attack and warning Syrian president Bashar Al Assad that he and his military would pay “a heavy price” if one occurred.

“The activities are similar to preparations made before its April 4, 2017 chemical weapons attack,” said White House press secretary Sean Spicer in a short statement without offering any proof or explanation.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon said that the US had observed preparations for possible new chemical weapons attacks being made at Shayrat airbase, a facility that was the target of a US missile strike in April.

“This involved specific aircraft in a specific hangar, both of which we know to be associated with chemicals weapons use,” said Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis.

On April 4, a sarin attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun killed at least 87 people and prompted the US to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat airbase in Homs province.

Syria and its ally Russia were quick to deny the US claims, with Syrian minister for national reconciliation Ali Haidar telling the Associated Press that the Syrian government had never used chemical weapons. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the White House statement “absolutely inadmissible and unacceptable”.

Mr Al Assad appeared defiant on Tuesday, making a rare public trip outside of the capital to Russia’s Hmeymim airbase in Latakia, despite the latest US threats.

A photo on the official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency showed Mr Al Assad sitting in a Russian fighter jet and chatting with Russian troops.

Just hours ahead of Monday’s threat, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov urged US secretary of state Rex Tillerson to end American “provocations” of Syrian government forces and discussed the need to strengthen ceasefires in Syria.

Tensions between US troops and pro-government forces in Syria have been increasing recently, with US jets attacking pro-government targets on four separate occasions in the past month. Near the town of Tanf on the Syria-Iraq border, US jets have bombed pro-regime troops and shot down Iranian-made drones after Washington says they appeared to have had hostile intentions towards US troops and local allies on the ground. Further north, a US F/A-18E Super Hornet downed a Syrian government jet on June 18, with Washington saying the plane had dropped bombs near fighters belonging to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

Despite the escalations, Washington has maintained that it is not seeking a fight with the Syrian government or its allies.In his statement Monday, Mr Spicer repeated that the US was in Syria to fight ISIL.

Ahead of Mr Spicer’s comments, US secretary of defence Jim Mattis also reiterated that the US was seeking to avoid a conflict.

“We just refuse to get drawn into a fight there in the Syrian civil war, we try to end that one through diplomatic engagement,” he said.

However, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told lawmakers on Tuesday that the Syrian government — along with Russia and Iran — would be put “on notice” if chemical weapons were used by Mr Al Assad’s forces again.

“I believe the goal is at this point not to just send Assad a message but to send Russia and Iran a message that if this happens again we are putting you on notice,” she said.

British defence secretary Michael Fallon said he would support any retaliatory US military action, telling the BBC “as always in war, the military action you use must be justified, it must be legal, it must be necessary. In the last case it was … if the Americans take similar action again, I want to be very clear — we will support it.”

The April 7 cruise missile strike on Syria’s Shayrat airbase marked an abrupt shift in US president Donald Trump’s Syria policy. Previously, the young administration had appeared disinterested in the civil war, seemingly stepping away from the Obama administration’s attempts at negotiating a peace.

The strike was applauded at the time by anti-government Syrians, many of whom had long asked the US to intervene in their country’s conflict. However, it quickly became apparent that the strike was only a one-off aimed at sending a message to Mr Al Assad.

* with additional reporting from Reuters, Agence France-Presse and Associated Press​​