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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.

Go deeper

OIG: HHS misused millions of dollars intended for public health threats

Vaccine vials. Photo: Punit Paranjpe/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel alerted the White House and Congress on Wednesday of an investigation that found the Department of Health and Human Services misused millions of dollars that were budgeted for vaccine research and public health emergencies for Ebola, Zika and now the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why it matters: The more than 200-page investigation corroborated claims from a whistleblower, showing the agency's violation of the Purpose Statute spanned both the Obama and Trump administrations and paid for unrelated projects like salaries, news subscriptions and the removal of office furniture.

John Kerry: U.S.-China climate cooperation is a "critical standalone issue"

President Biden's special climate envoy John Kerry said Wednesday that the U.S. must deal with China on climate change as a "critical standalone issue," but stressed that confronting Beijing's human rights and trade abuses "will never be traded" for climate cooperation.

Why it matters: The last few years have brought about a bipartisan consensus on the threat posed by China. But as the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter, China will be a vital player if the world is going to come close to reining in emissions on the scale needed to meet the Paris Agreement goals of limiting warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

In cyber espionage, U.S. is both hunted and hunter

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

American outrage over foreign cyber espionage, like Russia's SolarWinds hack, obscures the uncomfortable reality that the U.S. secretly does just the same thing to other countries.

Why it matters: Secrecy is often necessary in cyber spying to protect sources and methods, preserve strategic edges that may stem from purloined information, and prevent diplomatic incidents.

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