The White House warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad publicly Monday night that if his regime carried out another chemical weapons attack, it would pay a “heavy price.” The statement by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the “United States has identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime.” It said the preparations were similar to those before the April 4 sarin gas attack that killed dozens of Syrians.
Paul Miller, associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at The University of Texas at Austin, says the statement is “a little confusing.”
“I’ve seen reports that other officials in the national security establishment are unfamiliar with the intelligence the Trump administration is highlighting saying that Syria is preparing another chemical weapons attack,” Miller says.
He says the administration may have decided to run its own intelligence analysis.
“There’s not a good precedent for that; it’s not worked out well in the past,” he says.
Miller, who previously served on the National Security Council (NSC) staff and worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), says intelligence analyses typically come from the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency or another national agency.
“That intelligence would then be funneled to the White House through the NSC staff for analysis and for discussion about what to do in response,” he says.
Miller says the danger in issuing a public warning to a country is that it draws a line and, in effect, gives that country permission to “walk right up to the line and maybe even dip a toe over it to challenge you publicly.”
He says he’s concerned about the administration’s decision to draw a red line at the use of chemical weapons, something the Obama administration also did.
“I think when we draw this red line we’re communicating that it’s okay to kill civilians as long as you use different weapons,” Miller says. “I think that’s morally arbitrary and strategically useless.”
He says the White House’s Syria policy has been “a mess” for the past six years, and calls it “a bipartisan failure.”
Trump’s supporters have said the president’s decision to reinforce the previous administration’s stance on Syrian chemical weapons use was an attempt to restore U.S. deterrence credibility.
“If you’re concerned about U.S. credibility, I think maybe returning our attention to the wars we’ve been fighting would be a good idea,” he says, referring to the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Both Russia and Syria dismissed the White House’s warning Tuesday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said “such threats to Syria’s legitimate leaders are unacceptable.”
Miller says Russia’s reaction is not surprising, as Russia has consistently taken Assad’s side in the Syrian civil war. He says Russia wants to maintain access to its naval facility in Tartus, Syria, on the Mediterranean Sea.
“Insofar as we, the Trump administration, has challenged Assad, that does put us at odds with Russia, and I’m okay with that,” Miller says. “I don’t think Russia should have a veto on U.S. foreign policy.”
Written by Molly Smith.