President Donald Trump, in a late Monday night statement signed by his press secretary, signaled his intentions in Syria’s ongoing conflict, telegraphing that the United States is aware of “potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack” carried out by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and stands prepared to respond if the attack is carried out.
The statement, which came with little explanation, was a warning shot to both Assad and the Russian leaders who are backing his regime.
The statement seemed to mark a break with Trump’s policy of not tipping his hand about future military actions, something the administration stood behind before and after the Trump-authorized air strike on a Syrian government airbase on April 6.
“One of the things I think you’ve
noticed about me is, militarily, I don’t like to say where I’m going and what I doing,” Trump said on April 5, hours before 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired at Syria’s regime. “And I watched past administrations say, we will attack at such and such a day at such and such an hour … I’m not saying I’m doing anything one way or the other, but I’m certainly not going to be telling you.”
United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley put a finer point on Monday’s warning, tweeting that “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.”
A White House official said Monday’s statements were the “equivalent of putting someone on notice” and not “incongruous with the President’s broader foreign policy strategy” about not telegraphing his decisions.
“We are saying, ‘We see you,’ ” the official said.
“Please keep doing what you are doing if you want a repeat of April,” the official added, a reference to the Trump-authorized strikes on a Syrian air base on April 6.
Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the statement was spurred by satellite imagery that found a plane — the same that is believed to have carried out chemical attacks in the past — parked less than 30 meters from the bunker where the chemical weapons are thought to be stored.
“We have seen activity at Sheyrat airfield, Sheyrat airfield as you will recall is the same airfield that we struck in April, that airfield was associated with Syrian chemical weapons use,” he said Tuesday. “The activity that we’ve seen at Sheyrat in the last couple of days is associated with chemical weapons handling at a known spot on that base, a known aircraft shelter that is used for chemical weapons. And that is what inspired the statement you saw last night.”
The White House’s declaration on Syria comes as the administration grapples with a beleaguered agenda, including the possible collapse of their health care reform and the continuing pall of a special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s involvement in 2016 election meddling.
“We’re right on the threshold” of losing on health care, a White House official told CNN on Monday night, shortly after the White House’s statement on Syria.
Even still, the statement has already had domestic and international ramifications, setting the White House up for further action in Syria if they see the Syrian regime continue to take steps toward a chemical attack.
“As we have previously stated, the United States is in Syria to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” Spicer said. “If, however, Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price.”
The Kremlin was not happy with the White House statement. Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, said threats posed to the “legitimate leadership” of Syria were “unacceptable.” Peskov said he is unaware of the basis for the White House assertion that Syria was planning another chemical attack and that it is incorrect to blame the Syrian government for previous attacks without an investigation.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders flatly denied the White House was freelancing on foreign policy.
“We want to clarify that all relevant agencies — including State, DoD, CIA and ODNI — were involved in the process from the beginning. Anonymous leaks to the contrary are false,” Sanders said.
A Defense Department official told CNN the statement was coordinated between the highest levels of the White House, State and Pentagon, even though some may have been caught off guard.
Trump, despite authorizing strikes earlier this year, has been inconsistent on Syria.
He advised former President Barack Obama — over Twitter — to “not attack Syria” after a 2013 chemical attack and has slammed his predecessor for not observing the red line he set before the attack.
“I think the Obama administration had a great opportunity to solve this crisis a long time ago when he said the red line in the sand,” Trump said during a Rose Garden news conference with King Abdullah of Jordan on April 5, a day before the United States struck Syrian military forces.
“And when he didn’t cross that line after making the threat, I think that set us back a long ways, not only in Syria, but in many other parts of the world, because it was a blank threat,” Trump had said.
Trump and his top aides have so far been hesitant about outlining the administration’s Syria policy and the President has even said he is “proud” of his flexibility.
“I think the President has made it clear in the past, and will reiterate that today, that he is not here to telegraph what we’re going to do,” Spicer told reporters on April 4, days before the Syria strike.
And days after the air strike, Spicer declined to get into where US policy towards Syria was headed.
“The one thing the President’s been very clear on from the get-go, is he doesn’t like to telegraph all the cards that he has,” Spicer said on April 10.