In the wake of new reporting suggesting that the Trump administration's decision to target the Syrian government with cruise missiles in early April was conducted without sufficient evidence and over the objections of some in the U.S. intelligence community, the White House on Monday night threatened President Bashar al-Assad's government with further military action.
In a message that, according to the New York Times, "appeared designed to set the stage for another possible military strike," the White House statement made a claim (though it offered no evidence to support it) that the Syrian military appeared to be planning a chemical attack similar to one that took place in the village of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4. If "another" such attack took place, said the tweeted statement, there would be a "heavy price" for Assad to pay.
"Did the Syrians plan the attack on Khan Sheikhoun? Absolutely. Do we have intercepts to prove it? Absolutely. Did they plan to use sarin? No. But the president did not say: ‘'We have a problem and let's look into it.' He wanted to bomb the shit out of Syria."
While the White House has yet to present verifiable evidence proving Syria intentionally targeted its own civilian population with chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, the Assad government—though it acknowledges carrying out airstrikes in the town that day—continues to deny it was behind the horrific deaths. The Russian government, an ally of Assad and fighting on its behalf against rebel factions and the Islamic State, has said that a conventional weapon dropped by a Syrian warplane may have hit depots of chemical agents, chlorine, or fertilizers which resulted in the toxic gas that killed an estimated 60 people, including many children.
According the numerous outlets, Monday night's statement from the White House caught much of the U.S. intelligence community off guard. As the Independent reports, sources from within the U.S. State Department, Pentagon and Central Command said that "they did not know what had prompted the unprecedented threat to the Assad regime."
In his response, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday morning said that "such threats to Syria's legitimate leaders are unacceptable." Meanwhile, the Syrian government dismissed the allegations as false.
During a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday morning, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Trump's warning—aimed not just at Syria, but also at Russia and Iran—should be taken as, "If this happens again, we are pointing you on notice."
But in the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament, Konstantin Kosachev, Head of the Federation Council's International Affairs Committee, pushed back by saying the White House claims of a pending chemical attack by Syria smelled more like an orchestrated ruse for a preemptive strike by the U.S. rather than a serious attempt to prevent such an attack.
It could be, said Kosachev, as he made reference to the phony intelligence that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, "that the US is trying to hoodwink the global public with another 'test tube containing some white powder' to justify its own acts of aggression." Though stated as plausible, not factual, Kosachev said, "America could... be preparing its own preemptive strike against Syrian troops and play on the issue that has already been promoted globally, and so, any preventive actions will be justified."
Whatever the intelligence or motivations informing the White House, Kosachev added, the threats by Trump should be considered "extremely reprehensible" and "particularly frightening" given the stakes involved. "[The U.S.] can be aware of the upcoming attack and is not trying to prevent it," he said, "but pin the blame for it on the Syrian leader in advance."
The latest developments come amid new reporting showing that previous White House claims about what led to the deaths in Khan Sheikhoun, often treated by officials and the U.S. press as certainties, should be met with much more skepticism, especially given the administration's pattern of making false and misleading statements to the public.
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On Sunday, published in the German news outlet Welt, U.S. investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported that Trump "ignored important intelligence reports" when he ordered the launch of 59 cruise missiles on a Syrian government airbase on April 6, two days after after he saw pictures of people dying, including children, from chemical exposure on April 4.
According to Hersh's reporting, Trump issued the order for the attack "despite having been warned by the U.S. intelligence community that it had found no evidence that the Syrians had used a chemical weapon."
Offering a precise timeline, and citing unnamed intelligence sources and real-time transcripts he received detailing the military "deconfliction line" between Russia and U.S. coalition forces ahead of the April 4th attack, Hersh lays out a compelling case that Trump was unconcerned about the reliability or certainty of the narrative of events the led to the massacre in Khan Sheikhoun. According to Hersh's reporting, the target was a building in the town believed to house a command-and-control center and the crux of the attack was an airstrike carried out by the Syrians, with intelligence—and a sophisticated guided missile—supplied by the Russian military. Importantly, according to Hersh's account, the Russians had notified the CIA through official channels before the airstrike as a way to prevent any clandestine U.S. intelligence assets from being in the building at the time.
As reports and images began to emerge from the town on the day of the attack, reports Hersh,
The internet swung into action within hours, and gruesome photographs of the victims flooded television networks and YouTube. U.S. intelligence was tasked with establishing what had happened. Among the pieces of information received was an intercept of Syrian communications collected before the attack by an allied nation. The intercept, which had a particularly strong effect on some of Trump’s aides, did not mention nerve gas or sarin, but it did quote a Syrian general discussing a "special" weapon and the need for a highly skilled pilot to man the attack plane. The reference, as those in the American intelligence community understood, and many of the inexperienced aides and family members close to Trump may not have, was to a Russian-supplied bomb with its built-in guidance system. "If you’ve already decided it was a gas attack, you will then inevitably read the talk about a special weapon as involving a sarin bomb," the adviser said. "Did the Syrians plan the attack on Khan Sheikhoun? Absolutely. Do we have intercepts to prove it? Absolutely. Did they plan to use sarin? No. But the president did not say: ‘'We have a problem and let's look into it.' He wanted to bomb the shit out of Syria."
Most striking as it relates to the events in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4 and the current White House posture, is what one of Hersh's sources—identified as "senior adviser to the U.S. intelligence community"—told the veteran reporter.
"The issue is, what if there's another false flag sarin attack credited to hated Syria?" said the adviser. "Trump has upped the ante and painted himself into a corner with his decision to bomb. And do not think these guys are not planning the next faked attack. Trump will have no choice but to bomb again, and harder. He's incapable of saying he made a mistake."
"Trump's claim that he knows of a proposed chemical weapons attack to be carried out by the Assad government, and that he will use military action to prevent this, should also worry everyone who wants peace in the Middle East."
In the U.K. on Monday, the Stop the War Coalition issued a warning against any further moves by the Trump administration to escalate the war in Syria.
"There can be no justification for the use of chemical weapons, and we condemn any use of them," the group said in a statement. "Trump's claim that he knows of a proposed chemical weapons attack to be carried out by the Assad government, and that he will use military action to prevent this, should also worry everyone who wants peace in the Middle East. We do not know what evidence he has, and it is clear that at least some US military sources are skeptical of his claims. But we do know that Trump has built up U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in recent months, and at the same time increased his verbal attacks on Iran, one of Syria's main allies."
While condemning the bombing of civilian populations by all sides—the U.S., Russia, Syria, the U.K., and others—Stop the War said ending the war would not be "achieved through further intervention," but only through " genuine attempts to win a peace which benefits the people of the region who are suffering so much."