(CNSNews.com) – State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert on Thursday sparred with an American reporter with the pro-Kremlin RT television network, slapping him down as he pushed her on the issue of terrorists’ use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Caleb Maupin, a self-described “radical journalist and political analyst” who also reports for Iranian media outlets, challenged Nauert during the department’s press briefing about the White House warning this week about “potential preparations” by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for a chemical weapons attack
Maupin charged that the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist group had also “been using chemical weapons in Syria -- that’s documented.”
Couldn't the White House warning have created an opening for terrorists to carry out a chemical weapons attack? he asked.
“No,” she replied.
Asked again whether the White House statement could have provided terrorists with “cover” to carry out a chemical attack themselves, an evidently bemused Nauert retorted, “Do I have to do this again? We know that Assad has used chemical weapons on his own people, and he’s done that repeatedly including – including women and children.”
Maupin interjected that the U.S. had also convinced the world that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Then he changed tack, recalling the 2013 deal in which Assad agreed under pressure to hand over all declared chemical weapons stocks for destruction.
“So, didn’t Assad give up his chemical weapons in 2013?” he asked.
“No,” said Nauert.
“Didn’t that happen?”
“No,” she repeated, before moving to another questioner.
Minutes later Maupin tried again: “Are you saying that al-Qaeda has not used chemical weapons? “
Nauert said she was “not going to get into a debate about a hypothetical.”
Maupin asked again whether the White House announcement could not prompt terrorists to “carry out an attack and it would look like the government did it.”
“If you want to try to make excuses for the Assad regime, go right ahead,” the spokeswoman said. “You’ve got a lot of cameras on you right now, okay?”
Maupin said he was talking about al-Qaeda and al-Nusra, not about Assad.
Nauert said al-Qaeda was “horrible too, but what we’re talking about right now is Assad.”
Later, Maupin pinned a video clip of the exchange to a tweet in which he asked, “Is the USA setting up for a FalseFlag in Syria?”
Russia and the Assad regime have accused terrorists of carrying out a so-called “false flag” operation, using chemical weapons in the expectation the U.S. would hold Assad responsible and retaliate. President Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airbase after a toxic gas attack in Idlib province last April.
An Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) fact-finding mission to Syria confirmed on Thursday that the deadly nerve gas sarin or a “sarin-like” substance had been used in the April 4 attack. It did not attribute blame, since that is not part of its mandate.
The OPCW is the organization that oversaw Assad’s surrender of “declared” chemical weapons under the 2013 deal referred to by Maupin during Thursday’s press briefing.
That agreement was brokered by Moscow followed an earlier sarin weapons attack, in Ghouta near Damascus, also blamed by the West on the Assad regime.
In January 2016, the OPCW announced that the chemical weapons which Assad had “declared” had been destroyed.
Since then, however, a joint OPCW-U.N. team has determined that the regime has used chlorine gas as a weapon on at least three occasions in 2014 and 2015. (The OPCW’s mandate does not include assigning blame, but the joint OPCW-U.N. team may do so.)
Despite the fact the OPCW’s certification clearly applied only to “declared” stocks, Syria and its allies insist that since “all” the chemical weapons were handed over and destroyed, any subsequent use in the country must be the work of anti-Assad rebels or terrorists.
The regime has accused al-Nusra of using chemical weapons – for example after a chlorine attack in April 2014. In that instance, Human Rights Watch found evidence that the gas-laden bombs had been dropped from a considerable height, suggesting regime helicopters were responsible.
The OPCW-U.N. team has made no determinations regarding al-Nusra chemical attacks. It has, on the other hand, found evidence that ISIS used sulphur mustard gas north of Aleppo in August 2015.
Maupin, the RT journalist who fenced with Nauert on Thursday, features regularly in Iranian media, as borne out in a selection of headlines from the semi-official Fars news agency: