BEIRUT (AP) - The Russian military announced on Thursday that the Syrian government is now in full control of the last rebel-held town on the outskirts of Damascus that was the site of a suspected chemical attack over the weekend.
The development would mark a major victory for Syrian President Bashar Assad as the United States and its allies consider punitive military attacks against Syria following the suspected chemical attack that killed 40 people.
President Donald Trump said Thursday that an attack on Syria could take place “very soon or not so soon at all.” Seeking to dispel criticism he had tweeted the time of an attack a day earlier, Trump argued he had never signaled the timing of retaliation.
In response to U.S. threats, Assad said Thursday a potential retaliation for the suspected chemical attack would be based on “lies” and would seek to undermine his forces’ recent advances near Damascus.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany would not participate in possible military action in Syria, but supports sending a message that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable.
Assad said Western countries were lashing out after they lost their “bet” on opposition forces in the eastern Ghouta suburbs of the capital, Damascus.
Western threats endanger international peace and security, Assad said, and military action would only contribute to the “further destabilization” of the region. Assad spoke during a meeting with Ali Akbar Velayati, an aide to Iran’s supreme leader.
There was no official announcement by Damascus yet that Douma has been liberated and also no indication that Syrian government forces had entered the town on Thursday. One government flag was raised in the town, a war monitoring group said.
Syrian TV stations showed civilians in vehicles carrying the Syrian flag crossing from Damascus into Douma.
Meanwhile, Syrians were bracing for a possible U.S. attack in retaliation for Saturday’s alleged chemical assault in Douma.
Under an evacuation deal for eastern Ghouta that was mediated by Russia, Assad’s top ally, no Syrian troops are expected to enter Douma, only police. Another police force, incorporating former rebels, is also to be formed and deployed in Douma.
Evacuation of armed gunmen and civilians who refuse the deal is still underway.