The White House has accused Syria of preparing to stage a chemical attack in the Arab country, threatening that the US would make Damascus pay “a heavy price.”
Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed in a Monday statement that the US had “identified potential preparations” for an attack “that would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children.”
Spicer said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian military would “pay a heavy price” if they went ahead with the alleged plan.
A familiar manner of ratcheting up tensions
The Associated Press, meanwhile, cited anonymous US State Department officials who would “typically” be consulted before such statements are made as saying that they had been caught “completely off guard” by Spicer’s statement and that they had come to know about it only after it was released.
The AP report also said that the content of Spicer’s statement “didn’t appear to be discussed in advance with other national security agencies.”
On April 4, over 80 people died in an incident involving chemicals in the town of Khan Shaykhun in the western Idlib Province of Syria. Western countries blamed the Syrian government for what they said was a chemical attack, and days later, the US used it as a pretext to fire 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield in the central province of Homs. US officials claimed that the alleged Khan Shaykhun gas attack had been launched from that airfield.
This is while Syria and its ally Russia said the Syrian government had conducted a conventional airstrike on militant positions in Khan Shaykhun, which also targeted a chemical arms depot held and run by anti-Damascus militants, causing a leakage of the toxic substance and the deaths.
Veteran American investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh recently confirmed the Syrian narrative. He said that US President Donald Trump had ignored important intelligence reports before issuing the order for the missile attack against the Syrian airfield in reaction to the Khan Shaykhun incident.
According to Hersh, Trump turned a blind eye to reports by the US intelligence community which warned that there was no evidence suggesting the Syrians had used a chemical weapon. The US intelligence had found that the Syrians had on April 4 targeted a meeting site of militants, using a Russian-supplied guided bomb equipped with conventional explosives.
Following the US missile strike, Russia said the US could have prompted an all-out war as the projectiles could have hit Russian forces in the Arab country.
Another US official threatens Iran, Russia, too
Also on Monday, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley issued similar remarks on Twitter, saying, “Any further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia & Iran.”
Russia has been lending its airpower to Syria’s counterterrorism operations since September 2015. Iran has also been providing the Syrian military with advisory military support. The collective support has helped Syria rid considerable territory of Takfiri presence and helped establish an all-out ceasefire in the Arab country in late 2016.
Russia has already suspended a military hotline with the US over another provocative incident that saw US forces shoot down a Syrian fighter jet.
The ratcheting up of tensions by the US, including with the latest statement, now risks sparking a major confrontation between parties to the Syrian conflict and complicating efforts aimed at resolving it.
The US has unsanctioned presence in Syria.
Just hours earlier on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had called on the US to prevent “provocations” against Syrian government forces.
In a phone call initiated by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Lavrov “called on Washington to take steps to prevent provocations against Syrian government forces carrying out operations against terrorists,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.