US defence secretary warns Assad on chemical weapons during visit to Israel

Netanyahu welcomes Trump’s ‘strategic change’ in foreign policy

US  Defence secretary James Mattis  meets Israeli president Reuven Rivlin at his residence in Jerusalem on Friday. Photograph: Debbie Hill/ EPA

US Defence secretary James Mattis meets Israeli president Reuven Rivlin at his residence in Jerusalem on Friday. Photograph: Debbie Hill/ EPA

 

US defence secretary James Mattis says there is “no doubt” that Syria retains chemical weapons and he warned the regime of Bashar al-Assad against using such weapons again.

Speaking after talks with his Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman, Mr Mattis said Mr Assad, the Syrian president, had clearly retained chemical weapons in violation of an agreement to get rid of its entire stockpile.

“There can be no doubt in the international community’s mind that Syria has retained chemical weapons. It’s a violation of the United Nations Security Council resolution and it’s going to have to be taken up diplomatically and they would be ill advised to try to use any again; we made that very clear with our strike,” he said.

Mr Lieberman said Israel fully backed the American attack on a Syrian airbase after the alleged Syrian attack in Idlib province on April 4th, which killed more than 80 people, saying it “sent a strong message to the regime”. He declined to confirm comments earlier this week by a senior Israeli military official who said Israel believed Damascus still held between one and three tons of chemical weapons.

Mr Mattis, asked about reports that the Syrian air force had moved some of its planes to the Russian base at Latakia, confirmed that aircraft have been moved over recent days.

Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Israel and many countries in the region and the world welcome the strategic change in American foreign policy ushered in by president Donald Trump.

Mr Netanyahu – who had a tense relationship with former president Barack Obama – told Mr Mattis that Israel senses “a great change in the direction of American policy”.

He said this had been made clear by Mr Mattis’s “clear and forthright words” about Iran, which “follows very strong and forthright words on the part of President Trump, and very forthright deeds against the use of chemical weapons by Iran’s proxy, Syria”.

He stressed that Israel and the US shared common values and also common dangers, particularly “the twin threats of militant Islam” embodied in the Shia extremists he said were led by Iran, and the Sunni extremists led by the Islamic State terror group.

Mr Netanyahu said the US and Israel were committed to thwarting the dangers and seizing the common opportunities that had emerged, thanks to a commonality of interests, with some of Israel’s Arab neighbours.

Mr Mattis, on his first visit to Israel as secretary of defence, responded to Mr Netanyahu: “I think it’s important that we remind ourselves that if good people don’t band together then bad people can do a lot of damage in this world.”

During his meeting with Mr Lieberman, Mr Mattis spoke of US concern about the Iranian threat to Israel and the region. While noting that Iran was complying with the nuclear deal, he stressed Tehran continued to be a threat “with ballistic missiles, through its maritime and cyber activities and through proxies and surrogates, including Lebanese Hizbullah, a terrorist organisation helping to keep Assad in power in Syria”.