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Unpacking the WH warning on Syria's chemical weapons

Evan Vucci / AP

The White House released a statement Monday night that Syria's military would "pay a heavy price" if it launched a chemical weapons attack. Then BuzzFeed News and NYT reported that defense officials were caught off guard by the announcement. The WH narrative on chemical weapons and what to do about them continues to unfold, and some of the statements seem to contradict one another.

Why it matters: The apparent lack of coordination in setting the scene for another potential U.S. military strike in such a turbulent region could have dire consequences, especially since Trump showed in April his willingness to attack when it comes to chemical weapons use in Syria.

The White House

  • A "White House official" clarified via a Tuesday morning pool report 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."
  • To back up the White House, Reuters reported earlier that U.S. and allied intelligence officers "had for some time identified several sites where they suspected Assad's government may have been hiding newly made chemical weapons from inspectors," according to a "U.S. official familiar with the intelligence."
  • The Pentagon confirmed Tuesday that the "US has seen chemical weapons activity at Syrian air base used in past chemical attack."
  • Defense Secretary Mattis was pushing a different message hours before the White House announcement: "We just refuse to get drawn into the Syrian Civil War…We try to end that through diplomatic means," per WashPost.

The motivation:

  • As the NYT writes, the White House motivation to release the statement may be that "Mr. Trump or his advisers decided a public warning to Mr. Assad might deter another chemical strike."
  • Or as The Guardian writes, "It may also have been aimed at the regime's backers in Moscow and Tehran, who have resolutely backed Assad and denied the regime's responsibility for chemical weapons use."
  • U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley echoed that statement, saying, per AP: "The goal was not to just send Assad a message. She says she hopes the president's warning will force Russia and Iran to think twice about supporting Assad."

But the unusual nature of the announcement sets it apart: The executive director of the Arms Control Association Daryl G. Kimball told NYT he hasn't seen such a public warning like this "in at least the last 20 years" and that more often these issues are handled privately.

Reality check, according to what's happening in the region:

  • The WH threat isn't the only indication Mattis' message of diplomacy doesn't line up with military movements.
  • In recent weeks the U.S. has downed a Syrian jet and two pro-regime drones in alleged self-defense.
  • Tensions are heating up in the region as competing forces (Russia, Iran, the U.S.) converge on a smaller and smaller set of territory, and Russia has warned the U.S. it will target U.S. aircraft west of the Euphrates after the recent downed jets.