Syria appears to be preparing a new chemical weapons attack against its citizens, the White House said on Monday — warning that if the weapons are again used, the US will make the Syrian government "pay a heavy price."
White House press secretary Sean Spicer announced the news in a statement late on Monday.
"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.
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."
By Tuesday morning, national security officials were getting briefs on what prompted the White House to release the statement warning Syria not to launch chemical weapons attacks on its civilians.
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesperson, told reporters that in the last 24 hours there was evidence that the regime was preparing for the "possible use of chemical weapons" based on activity at Shayrat Airfield, the same base that the US military struck in April over suspected chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians. There was evidence that the regime was moving specific airplanes on the airfield that could be used in such an attack, according to Davis.
A US defense official told BuzzFeed News that there were other indications beyond plane movements, but would not give more specifics.
When asked who had obtained the intelligence, the Pentagon only offered a snarky reply: "The United States of America," a spokesperson retorted.
Though evidence of a possible imminent attack existed, the channels at the Pentagon which would usually have coordinated on last night's statement were left in the dark. Many officials across the Pentagon did not know what the White House was referring to until Tuesday morning.
The White House pushed back on reports of confusion in a statement released on Tuesday morning. “In response to several inquiries regarding the Syria statement issued last night, we want to clarify that all relevant agencies -- including State, DoD, CIA and ODNI --were involved in the process from the beginning," the statement read. "Anonymous leaks to the contrary are false.”
But five US defense officials reached by BuzzFeed News on Monday night said they did not know where the potential chemical attack would come from, including one US Central Command official who had "no idea" about its origin. The officials said they were unaware the White House was planning to release its statement. Usually such statements are coordinated across the national security agencies and departments before they are released.
A Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment on the matter on Monday and referred questions to the White House statement. A State Department spokesperson also referred BuzzFeed News to the White House statement and said the agency did not have anything to add.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis departed on Monday evening for a three-day trip to Germany and Belgium, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford was in Afghanistan. Earlier in the evening, both Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as well as National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, attended a White House dinner hosted by President Trump for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Shortly after Spicer's statement, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted that Russia and Iran would share the blame for any future attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against the Syrian people.
The White House did not specify what form any US retribution would take, or what intelligence suggested that Assad was preparing to once again deploy chemical weapons on his own people.
A major chemical attack against civilians in April prompted the US to launch air strikes against Syrian forces. It was the first time the US military had targeted the Syrian government since the country's civil war began six years ago.
Graphic images of the attack's devastation moved Trump to order the strike, he later said.
"Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered at this very barbaric attack," he said from his Florida club, Mar-a-Lago. "No child of God should ever suffer such horror."
Grace Wyler contributed to this story.