Washington dodged questions about a chemical attack in Syria, which the Russian military has blamed on US-backed militants, refusing to clarify whether the “incident” if confirmed would disqualify the group from being considered “moderate.”
Shells suspected to have contained chlorine gas were fired into the Salahuddin residential district in eastern Aleppo on Tuesday night, the Russian Defense Ministry said Wednesday, identifying the perpetrators as“militants from the Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki group, considered by Washington as ‘moderate opposition’.”
Al-Zenki has been identified as one of the groups that received TOW anti-tank missiles from the US.
Based in Aleppo, the group made headlines last month, after two videos emerged online showing what appear to be its members taunting and then decapitating the 12-year-old Abdullah Issa, a Palestinian boy.
Asked if the beheading and the chemical weapons use disqualified Al-Zenki from further US support, State Department spokesman Mark Toner dodged the question.
“We condemn strongly the use of any chemical weapons and any credible allegations of their use in Syria we’ll investigate,” he told RT’s Caleb Maupin at the press briefing Wednesday.
Regarding the investigation into the beheading, Toner said that the US was still “looking into that incident.”
“I know that the group itself said that they’d also made some arrests and set up a commission of inquiry into the incident,” he added.
Asked if Washington had a line that should not be crossed if the rebels wanted to keep US support, Toner retreated to invoking the International Syria Support Group – an informal body made up of “stakeholders” in the conflict that includes Russia and Iran, but also the US and Saudi Arabia.
“There is a lot of vetting of the Syrian moderate opposition,” Toner said, “and not just by the US, but by all the members of the ISSG, and frankly, the UN.” All members of the ISSG have agreed that only Al-Nusra and Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL/) were terrorist organizations. “One of the ongoing discussions we’ve been having with Russia is how do we clearly delineate between these known terrorist groups – Nusra and Daesh – and the moderate opposition.”
In May, however, Washington blocked Russia’s efforts to add Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham to the list of terrorist groups in Syria.
“These are not easy processes, and one incident here or there would not necessarily make you a terrorist group,” Toner said, adding that a group would be considered terrorist if it showed clear intent to carry out terrorist attacks “both in Syria as well as on the West.”
As for all the other rebel groups, the State Department spokesman said the US is “constantly evaluating their behavior.”