June 27, 2017

TSC IntelBrief: The U.S. Warns Syria About Chemical Weapons

In the late evening of June 26, the U.S. Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, tweeted out a warning of a U.S. military response should the Assad regime in Syria launch another chemical attack.

• In a very unusual public statement, the White House said it has identified “potential preparations” for a chemical strike by the Assad regime.

• The statement, which was tweeted by the Press Office, warned of a “heavy price” if the Syrian regime conducted another chemical attack.

• In April, the U.S. launched 59 Tomahawk missiles against regime targets in response to an April 4 chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun.

• The U.S. is finding itself drawn more deeply into the Syrian conflict even as the fight against the Islamic State nears an endgame.

In the late evening of June 26, the U.S. Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, tweeted out a warning of a U.S. military response should the Assad regime in Syria launch another chemical attack. Unusual for this kind of statement, it was reportedly not coordinated through any national security agencies, including the U.S. Defense or State Departments. Officials at Centcom and the Pentagon were reportedly unaware not only that the statement would be released, but of the origin of the intelligence of such an attack by the Assad regime. This raises the possibility that the White House statement may be stemming either from a unilateral decision by the administration to declassify intelligence or because of a lack of, or miscommunication between, the West Wing, the Pentagon and U.S. security agencies. The statement reported the U.S. had “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.” It warned that if “Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price.”

Soon after Spicer’s tweeted statement, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, tweeted out that both Russia and Iran would be blamed as well as the Assad regime for any attack, another sign of disconnect between administration departments, as the White House statement had made no mention of Russia or Iran. It is also an indication of how the U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict is changing.

On April 7, the U.S. launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syrian regime military targets, the first direct action by the U.S. in the six-year old war. The missile strikes were in response to an April 4 chemical attack by the Assad regime in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. That Sarin gas attack, which was confirmed by the United Nations, killed at least 89 people. The June 26 statement noted that the preparations it was seeing were like those before the Khan Sheikhoun attack.

Putting aside the unusual release, via Twitter, of an official U.S. warning of possible military action from the White House Press Office, the warning highlights the quandary in which the Trump Administration – not unlike the Obama administration before it – finds itself. The April 7 Tomahawk strikes were significant in geopolitical ways but not so much militarily – nor were they designed to be. The purpose of such strikes is to deter future atrocities involving chemical weapons, though there is no shortage of atrocities in Syria involving the death of civilians. Yet, with Russia directly involved in the war, not just supporting the Assad regime but fighting for it and providing vital air capabilities, it is unclear how far the U.S. would go to ‘deter’ the regime.

Relations between the U.S. and Russia are already strained in Syria, with their respective air forces on the edge of confrontation. Last week, for the first time, the U.S. shot down a Syrian fighter jet, drawing a strong Russian reaction, with a threat made by the Russian Defense Ministry to target U.S. or allied aircraft flying west of the Euphrates River Valley. While tensions have abated somewhat since that threat, the situation is exceedingly tense and ripe for error or misjudgment.

As the fight against the Islamic State nears its end, and begins the even more complicated stage of reconstruction and governance in Syria, the U.S. will find itself in more direct conflict with the Assad regime, and therefore with Russia. If there is indeed another Syrian chemical attack and a corresponding U.S. response, it remains to be seen how the current state of affairs – in which all sides are circling each other as everyone prepares for a post-Islamic State in Syria – might shift. The dangerous complications radiating out from the Syrian war show no sign of fading.



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