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White House Issues Warning to Syria, Surprising Many in the U.S. Government

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The White House said Monday night that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appeared to be preparing another chemical weapons attack, and it warned that he would “pay a heavy price” if such an attack took place.

As of Tuesday afternoon, White House press secretary Sean Spicer had not offered any evidence to back up the claims he made the day before. His Monday statements have perplexed members of several camps, including State Department officials. The Associated Press reported:

Several State Department officials typically involved in coordinating such announcements said they were caught off guard, and it appeared the underlying intelligence information was known only to a small group of senior officials. Typically, the State Department, Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies would all be consulted before a White House declaration sure to ricochet across foreign capitals.

The AP explained the difference between President Trump’s willingness to use threats and former President Obama’s attempts at diplomacy:

The White House threat essentially draws a “red line” on chemical weapons in much the same manner President Barack Obama did. There is one major difference: Whereas Obama backed down from a threat to use force after a 2013 attack, opting instead for a diplomatic plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, Trump has proven his willingness to authorize military force. U.S. officials say Assad never fulfilled the demand of Obama’s deal with Russia, keeping control of some stockpiles.

Reuters reported that members of Congress have had mixed reactions to Spicer’s statement.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said “the claims that they [members of Trump’s administration] made, from my perspective, are valid claims.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., member of the Senate foreign relations and armed services committees, said there was no legal justification for exacting a “heavy price” from Syria.

Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Tuesday during a hearing of the House of Representatives, “I believe that the goal is, at this point, not just to send Assad a message but to send Russia and Iran a message that if this happens again we are putting you on notice.”

On Monday, Haley had sounded a similar note of warning via Twitter. “Any further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia & Iran who support him killing his own people,” Haley tweeted.

Members of Trump’s administration who said the threat caught them by surprise requested anonymity in their discussions with the press, stating they were not authorized to publicly address any matter of national security planning.

–Posted by Emily Wells.

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