What’s Behind the Syrian Chemical-Weapons Warning?

June 30, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: SyriaTrumpChemical WeaponsAssadISIS

What’s Behind the Syrian Chemical-Weapons Warning?

Assad may be hoping that another chemical-weapons attack in Idlib Province could dissuade further rebel advances.

From seemingly out of nowhere, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer released a brief and ominous statement late Monday evening regarding Bashar al-Assad, Syria and chemical weapons—three things that go together like fire, dynamite and gasoline:

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, Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price.

With that, President Trump issued a definitive red line involving U.S. military action in Syria.

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Picking up where the White House left off, shortly after the statement’s release U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley tweeted : “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.” She is known to have a more forward-leaning position on foreign-policy issues, especially when compared to the State Department. Nevertheless, she was added to the Principals Committee that deals with the national-security issues after the last known Syrian chemical-weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun in April.

Earlier on Monday she tweeted , “Great meeting and lunch with @POTUS and @VP today #USStrong” referring to the president and Vice President Mike Pence. Accompanying that sentiment was a picture of herself sitting across from President Trump in the Oval Office.

Lunch wasn’t the president’s only foreign-policy related dining experience of the day either. The White House hosted a dinner for the visiting Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, which was attended by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster. Secretary Mattis departed for Germany and Belgium later in the evening and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford was in Afghanistan at the time.

According to an Associated Press report , a nongovernmental source with close ties to the White House said the administration had “received intelligence that the Syrians were mixing precursor chemicals for a possible sarin-gas attack in either the east or south of the country, where government troops and allied forces have faced recent setbacks.”

The United States was watching Assad’s Shayrat Airbase. After the regime’s air-strike attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April, senior administration officials told reporters in a White House background briefing that they had “quite clear” information that a SU-22 fixed-wing aircraft from the regime-controlled Shayrat airfield carried out the attack. The airfield was also the recipient of President Trump’s Tomahawk missile response .

As one would expect, the latest White House message on Syria reverberated internationally. Ali Haidar, who holds the cynically contemptuous title of “Syrian Minister for National Reconciliation” dismissed the statement and suggested , “the charges foreshadowed a new diplomatic campaign against Syria at the UN.”

The Kremlin wasn’t far behind. Russian president Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “such threats to Syria’s legitimate leaders are unacceptable.” Going further, Peskov took issue with the Trump administration’s use of the phrase “another chemical weapons attack” because it implies there was, in fact, a previous chemical-weapons attack. He contended that Moscow called for an independent investigation into the April attack but one was never conducted.

Absent from much of the frenzied reporting on the late night warning is the context of the evolving war in Syria. The natural questions have already been asked: Why would Assad use chemical weapons again? What intelligence did the United States have that led to the White House warning? What does “a heavy price” mean as far as a response is concerned? Is there a metric already worked out by the White House that calibrates American responses to specific actions from Assad? And so on.

“Everybody wants to know what we’re going to do and what the threshold is,” a senior White House official with knowledge of national-security matters told this author on Tuesday, “but that’s not something we do. We don’t give our playbook away.”

The senior official continued: “The strategic objective is to stop the carnage in Syria and our target specifically is ISIS.” When asked about the escalating developments in Syria’s east and south, he reiterated, “The Islamic State is the military target of our forces,” then he added, “But that doesn’t mean we don’t understand the broader geostrategic reality and the interplay of all the other actors involved in the theater.”

The center of the conflict for pro-regime forces has shifted from the west, eastward towards the territory that ISIS holds as they battle U.S.-backed forces. It brings Team Assad into direct conflict with the United States and raises the risk to U.S. service members on the ground. Assad and his Iranian patrons may understand the balance of power in the wider region may well be determined in Syria’s east.