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U.S. Defense Secretary Says Syria Appears To Have Heeded Warning On Chemical Attack

Syria -- A still image taken from a video said to be taken on August 1, 2016 posted on social media shows two men standing over a man on a bed, making him sit up as he breathes through a mask in what is said to be in Saraqeb, Idlib province

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said that Syria appears to have heeded a U.S. warning against launching a new chemical attack, as Russia accused the United States of “bellicose rhetoric.”

"It appears that they took the warning seriously," Mattis told reporters on June 28 who were flying with him to Brussels for a meeting of NATO defense ministers the next day. "They didn't do it."

Mattis’s comments came a day after the United States said Syria's government appeared to be preparing for a chemical weapons attack and warned that it will "pay a very heavy price" if one takes place.

The Pentagon said that activity was detected at the Syrian Army's Shayrat airfield.

And the White House said similar activities had been seen before the nerve agent Sarin was allegedly dropped on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4.

Dozens of people were killed, prompting U.S, President Donald Trump to order a missile strike on the Shayrat airfield, from where the United States says jets departed before the Khan Sheikhoun incident.

The Damascus government denies that it is preparing a chemical attack. President Bashar al-Assad has previously said the Khan Sheikhoun incident was fabricated.

Iran accused the United States of a "dangerous escalation" in Syria, while the Kremlin, another key Assad ally in Syria’s six-year civil war, denounced Washington's "unacceptable threats."

Iran provides Assad with troops, while Russia provides air support in his war against rebels and IS extremists.

"As for Washington's bellicose rhetoric, we believe it is necessary to warn our U.S. colleagues against further irresponsible steps in violation of the United Nations Charter and the generally recognized norms of the international law," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a June 28 statement.

"Another dangerous U.S. escalation in Syria on fake pretext," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted on June 27, adding it "will only serve [the Islamic State group] precisely when it's being wiped out by Iraqi and Syrian people."

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron agreed with Trump in a phone call on June 27 on "the need to work on a joint response in the event of a chemical attacks in Syria," the French presidency said.

U.S. forces have increased their presence in Syria to about 1,000 in recent months as the Pentagon steps up its campaign against the Islamic State (IS) extremist group, which is being targeted by U.S.-backed rebel forces in its stronghold of Raqqa.

But the U.S. forces have increasingly clashed with Iran-backed forces operating in the same battle space.

The United States has shot down several Iranian drones, bombed Iranian-backed militia allied with Syria, and shot down a Syrian jet that the Pentagon said was preparing to bomb U.S.-backed rebel troops.

The White House made it clear on June 27 that the latest warning against Syrian chemical attacks was not aimed only at Assad but targeted his allies as well.

"The goal is at this point not just to send Assad a message, but to send Russia and Iran a message," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said.

Assad did not respond to the U.S. warnings as he toured an air base in western Syria that hosts Russian aircraft and troops on June 27. Accompanied by the Russian Army's chief of staff, General Valery Gerasimov, Assad climbed into the cockpit of a Russian Su-35 fighter jet.

"The Syrian people will not forget the support of their Russian brothers," Assad wrote in the visitors' book at the Hmeimim base.

With reporting by AP, dpa, Reuters, BBC, and AFP