The White House decision to warn Syria publicly marks a potential shift in strategy in handling Syria’s chemical arsenal — and revealed an administration that keeps big decisions close to its chest.
At a minimum, the White House’s warning late Monday night suggested an ad-hoc decision to publicly pressure Syria over its use of chemical weapons. Three US officials told BuzzFeed News that the White House hoped its statement would deter the regime from using such weapons. Nearly twenty-four hours later, it has worked.
“I think it is part of a Syria policy. I think the administration is clear that the use of chemical weapons is a red line and they are defining that,” Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East policy told BuzzFeed News.
And it pointed to a White House that closely managed decision making. Top level leaders were aware of the administration approach — and some were communicating with Russia about their concerns — but lower level US officials were caught flat footed about a new tactic toward the war in Syria, creating a climate of confusion around an already ominous statement.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke to his Russian counterpart about the issue. Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of the US war against ISIS, also made calls to mitigate the threat of a Syrian chemicals weapons attack, in a call with Russian officials, a senior defense official told BuzzFeed News. But many officials said they knew nothing about the Monday night statement or the evidence that led to it. It wasn’t until Tuesday morning that officials were able to spell out what prompted the warning to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Tuesday that U.S. intelligence first became aware over in the last day that the Syrian government was moving SU-22, the kind of aircraft needed to deliver chemical weapons, at Shayrat airfield. The Syrian government launched a chemical attack on civilians in April from that airfield, which the US subsequently truck with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
US intelligence also reported intercepting “chatter” from Syrian forces on the ground indicating preparations for a possible imminent chemical weapons attack, a defense official told BuzzFeed News. That intelligence prompted the White House responded to produce a message Monday night that gave little further explanation.
“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,” the White House statement read. “As we have previously stated, the United States is in Syria to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. If, however, Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price.”
It’s also unclear how much debate went into the White House decision to go public with its concerns and whether any of the country’s intelligence agencies objected to making a public pronouncement based on classified intelligence.
Also unknown is whether the Trump administration intends now to publicize every time it learns of a possible use of chemical weapons — a course that might eventually reveal to the Syrians U.S. intelligence gathering capabilities and force the U.S. to decide whether to take new action.
The lack of a clear policy toward Syria has hovered over every major military action there under the Trump administration. After the US strike in April, some concluded that the US would launch similar strikes at the regime after every suspected chemical weapons attack. But, at the time, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis instead called the U.S. retaliation on the Shayrat airfield a “singular” act and said it did not indicate a change in U.S. military policy in Syria, which remains focused on defeating the Islamic State.
In the past, the United States has said almost nothing about what it knew in advance about Syrian government chemical attacks in the six-year civil war. In 2013, then-Secretary of State John Kerry said that the administration had seen signs of preparations in the days leading up to a chemical weapons attack in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus that killed hundreds of people. The revelation led to angry denunciations from opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad that the U.S. had not warned them of the coming assault.
The Ghouta attacks were the deadliest use of chemical weapons in the Syrian war. April’s chemical attack, which gave rise to the U.S. assault on the Shayrat Airfield, was the second-deadliest, killing 74 in the town of Khan Shaykun.
Russia denounced the US threat on Tuesday, but the reaction from Syria was muted. Neither Mattis nor Tillerson publicly discussed Tuesday what they hoped to see happen from the statement or how the US would respond if the Assad regime launched a chemical weapons attack.
The administration pushed back on the idea that any confusion existed at all on Tuesday. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tillerson spoke with President Trump about the chemical weapons in a statement earlier in the day on Monday. “That’s what matters,” she said. She declined to get into how that information “filtered down” to the rest of the department. The White House itself insisted that all “relevant” departments and agencies were aware before the statement went out.
US officials were standing by, meanwhile, to see if the threat of action would prove an effective preemptive strike — one that does not deploy a single weapon.
John Hudson contributed reporting from Washington, DC.