On Monday night, the White House released an out-of-the-blue statement, which warned that Syrian President President Bashar al-Assad was possibly planning another chemical attack. The statement was an unusually hefty one (especially coming from Sean Spicer) and threatened to impose a “heavy price” against Assad’s regime if it carried out such an abominable act once again. The message arrives months after a deadly April attack on the Syrian people that’s widely regarded as the work of the Assad government. Following that atrocity, President Trump launched a missile strike into a Syrian airfield.
And so we arrive with this White House statement — which the New York Times notes cannot be tied to any specific motivating factor — that appears to suggest the receipt of intelligence about another chemical attack in the works. Via the Washington Post:
“The United States has identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime that would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children. The activities are similar to preparations the regime made before its April 4, 2017 chemical weapons attack.
“As we have previously stated, the United States is in Syria to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. If, however, Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price.”
When contacted by the NY Times to explain the timing of this public announcement (which may aim to deter Assad?), a White House National Security Council spokesperson declined to elaborate and simply stated, “We are letting the statement speak for itself.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nicki Haley followed up on the statement with a tweeted warning of her own: “Any further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia & Iran who support him killing his own people.”
UPDATE #1 — 8:15am EST: Buzzfeed reports that CENTCOM officials have “no idea” what prompted this statement:
Five US defense officials reached by BuzzFeed News said they did not know where the potential chemical attack would come from, including one US Central Command official who had “no idea” about its origin. The officials said they were unaware the White House was planning to release its statement; usually such statements are coordinated across the national security agencies and departments before they are released.
UPDATE #2 — 8:55am EST: Reuters reports that Syria has rejected the notion that they’re preparing such an attack. Likewise, Russia has called this White House statement “unacceptable.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says he is “not aware of any information about a threat that chemical weapons could be used.”