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WASHINGTON -- The White House warned Syria's President Bashar Assad on Tuesday that if he chooses to use chemical weapons, the U.S. and its allies "will respond swiftly and appropriately," pushing back against an expected Syrian government offensive against an opposition stronghold.

The White House said in a statement that President Donald Trump was monitoring the situation in the rebel-held Idlib province, where it said millions of innocent civilians are under threat of an attack by Assad's government.

Trump has warned that an attack "would be a reckless escalation of an already tragic conflict," the White House said, risking the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. "Let us be clear, it remains our firm stance that if President [Assad] chooses to again use chemical weapons, the United States and its Allies will respond swiftly and appropriately," the statement read.

The U.S. has twice struck Syrian military installations in response to alleged poison gas attacks. The Syrian government denies ever using chemical weapons.

The Trump administration declaration came after the Kremlin criticized Trump's warnings against the expected offensive in the northern province, where Syria's rebels are holed up and have come under intense airstrikes.

Russia has been a key supporter of Assad and complained about militants in Idlib targeting its own facilities.

Trump on Monday sent a tweet warning the Syrian government and its allies against a "reckless attack" on the Idlib province. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the militants pose a terrorist threat, calling Idlib a "hornets' nest of terrorists."

The fate of Idlib, home to almost 3 million people, is expected to top the agenda at a Russian-Turkish-Iranian summit in Tehran on Friday. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is likely to push against an all-out, prolonged assault that would send a new wave of refugees toward his country's border.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said efforts would be made to minimize the human cost of the offensive and that he had discussed the matter with Turkish and Syrian officials ahead of the meeting. Iran is a key ally of the Syrian government.

The U.S. and France have each warned that Assad may resort to chemical weapons in the assault. The French Foreign Ministry is "ready to act" if Assad uses lethal chemical weapons, it said in a statement on Monday.

Meanwhile, Russian warplanes in Syria bombed the country's northern city of Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib province Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The monitoring group recorded more than a dozen strikes around the city. In photographs from the area, plumes of dust and smoke could be seen rising from the edge of a residential district.

Also Tuesday, Israeli jets flying high over Lebanon struck at targets inside Syria, Syrian state media reported, in a rare daytime raid that killed at least one person.

The state Syrian Arab News Agency said the country's air defenses shot down five missiles, adding that one person was killed and 12 others were wounded.

It reported strikes on the Wadi Ayoun area in the western Hama province and on the town of Baniyas in the coastal Tartous province.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the jets targeted military installations belonging to Iran.

Lebanese residents in areas north of the capital, Beirut, reported hearing jets overhead before sunset.

Israel is believed to be behind a string of strikes targeting government and allied military installations in Syria, in order to disrupt weapons transfers between its archenemies Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. The Israeli government rarely acknowledges the attacks, and such strikes usually take place late at night.

The Syrian government accused Israel of striking a weapons research facility in Masyaf, near Wadi Ayoun, in July. The attack killed a top military scientist.

An Israeli military official said Tuesday that Israel has struck more than 200 Iranian targets in Syria over the past 18 months. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity under military guidelines, said the targets were connected to Iran's elite Al-Quds force and include air force components, support infrastructure, and weapons storage and manufacturing facilities.

The official said Tuesday's alleged airstrikes were not included in the tally. He would not confirm Israel was behind those strikes and did not comment on them.

Information for this article was contributed by Ken Thomas, Albert Aji, Philip Issa, Jamey Keaten, Nataliya Vasilyeva and Josef Federman of The Associated Press; by Alex Wayne, Ilya Arkhipov and Andrey Biryukov of Bloomberg News; and by Louisa Loveluck of The Washington Post.

A Section on 09/05/2018

Print Headline: U.S. to Assad: Don't be reckless

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