In the midst of investigations into Russian interference in the United States presidential election, obstruction of justice, and fighter jet shootdowns, the White House suddenly announced last night that Syrian President Bashar Assad would “pay a heavy price” if it used chemical weapons again in Syria. And it’s been reported that the Pentagon and the State department had no idea about it.
Today’s Pentagon statement clears up confusion in earlier reports suggesting—or flat out saying—that Pentagon and State Department officials didn’t know this was coming.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s tweet last night threw many in the federal government off guard:
Soon after, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley tweeted this:
Per The Washington Post, the Pentagon eventually announced that it has, in fact, observed some chemical weapons activity on a Syrian military base:
Marine Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday that the undisclosed activity was centered at least in part on one aircraft hangar at the central Shayrat air base that Tomahawk missiles hit in a barrage of strikes on April 7 that marked the first U.S. military intervention against Assad’s forces during six years of war.
Those strikes came after Assad’s military dropped sarin on the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun, killing scores of civilians and leaving hospitals overflowing with hundreds more casualties.
U.S. military officials declined to say what kind of chemical weapons may be at Shayrat now, or how they observed them. The United States regularly flies both manned and unmanned aircraft over Syria and also has some satellites capable of recording images of the battlefield.
Yet it makes a lot of sense why the handling of this announcement was such a clusterfuck. As the Daily Beast reports, President Donald Trump was more concerned with more important things:
All this occurred this week as President Donald Trump displayed what two White House officials characterized as relative indifference and passivity towards the subject, instead opting to focus his public and private energies towards fuming at his domestic enemies in the Democratic Party and the “fake news.”
“The president cares more about CNN and the Russia story than [Syria] at the moment,” one official observed.
The Kremlin, for its part, says it is unaware of any planned chemical attacks and that it would be “unacceptable” to retaliate against Assad’s government.
In April, the Assad regime launched a attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, in northwestern Syria on April 4 that killed more than 80 people and injured hundreds more. The United States Navy retaliated with a Tomahawk cruise missile attack against a Syrian airfield, that was coordinated with Russian military forces backing the Assad government.
It is not unusual for the White House to warn foreign governments against taking actions that will result in a tough American response, but it is usually done in private. A former Obama official told POLITICO that it used an intermediary to warn the Assad regime privately against using chemical weapons in the past.
Clearly, that is not Trump’s approach, thus the mess at the Pentagon over yesterday’s announcement. BuzzFeed initially reported that officials at the Pentagon didn’t know the White House would make its announcement last night, causing some confusion over whether the Oval Office communicated with the Pentagon before going public. Now that the Pentagon confirmed the White House’s statement, the next question is how will Trump respond if Assad does use chemical weapons again.
It just probably should not be Tomahawks.