The Cable

Intel Reports Prompt U.S. Warning to Assad Over Chemical Weapons

The warning comes after weeks of military clashes between U.S. forces and Iranian-backed fighters and Syrian troops.

A picture taken on April 7, 2017 shows a view of the damaged Shayrat ("ash-Shairat") airfield at the Syrian government forces military base targeted earlier overnight by US Tomahawk cruise missiles, southeast of the central and third largest Syrian city of Homs. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER        (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on April 7, 2017 shows a view of the damaged Shayrat ("ash-Shairat") airfield at the Syrian government forces military base targeted earlier overnight by US Tomahawk cruise missiles, southeast of the central and third largest Syrian city of Homs. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. intelligence detected suspicious movements by Syrian government forces at a major air base in recent days, prompting the White House to warn Damascus it would pay a “heavy price” if it launched a chemical weapons attack.

The stern warning marked the latest in a series of tense confrontations between Washington and the Syrian regime and its allies, Russia and Iran. In the past several weeks, U.S. special operations forces and U.S. allies on the ground have clashed in the country’s southeast with proxies loyal to Iran and the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and American warplanes have downed a Syrian fighter jet and two Iranian-made drones.

Although some at the State Department and the Pentagon were caught off guard by the White House statement Monday evening, administration officials said it was not a unilateral move and that a small circle of senior leaders across government agencies took part in the discussions that led to the warning.

“It was coordinated through the interagency process but closely held. And it moved very fast,” a U.S. intelligence official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told Foreign Policy on Tuesday.

The administration pushed back against reports that suggested the State Department or the Pentagon was left in the dark about the warning. An anonymous White House official criticized anonymous “leaks” that maintained the Pentagon, the State Department, and spy agencies were kept out of the loop on the decision to issue the warning to Assad. The official said “we want to clarify that all relevant agencies — including State, DoD, CIA and ODNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] — were involved in the process from the beginning. Anonymous leaks to the contrary are false,” according to a White House press pool report on Tuesday.

The movement of aircraft and materials at the Shayrat Airfield near the city of Homs over the past several days raised red flags for U.S. intelligence officials partly because it is the same base that was used to launch a deadly chemical weapons attack against Syrian civilians in April, several defense officials told FP.

The White House warning was clearly a bid to persuade Damascus not to use banned chemical weapons. Following the White House’s statement, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley took the warning a step further, tweeting that “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.”

The Shayrat Airfield was also the Donald Trump administration’s target of 59 Tomahawk missiles launched in response to the Syrian regime’s April 4 chemical attack that killed over 80 civilians, including children. U.S. defense officials said at the time that the intent of the strike was to limit the Syrian government’s ability to carry out further attacks, and not to destroy the base.

Russian aircraft and troops were at the base the night of the April 7 strike, through Moscow was given advance warning through a hotline American and Russian military officers maintain for Syrian operations. The Russian military maintains a presence at the base.

Syrian and Russian officials have both denied that preparations for a chemical attack are being carried out at the air base. Speaking with reporters in Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Russian government considers “such threats against the Syrian leadership to be unacceptable.”

The latest flare-up comes after a relatively quiet period over the past several days, following weeks of clashes between U.S. forces and their local partners, and opposing Syrian and Iranian-backed forces.

“Tensions are running lower than they had been over the last several weeks,” Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad, told FP on Tuesday. “Regime weapons and aircraft are not pointed at us or our allies.”

It was rare for the U.S. government to issue such a public and specific warning over the use of banned weapons, experts said.

British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon told Sky News Tuesday he plans to discuss the situation with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis when they meet Thursday in Brussels. “We fully supported the last strike … and if the U.S. is considering a similar strike, then we’ll support that, too,” Fallon said.

Syrian government-controlled media ran photos of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visiting a Russian air base at Hmeymim in western Syria on Tuesday.  It was reportedly his first visit to the base, a hub of the Russian war effort to support the Assad regime. He was escorted around the base by Russian chief of staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov.

The warning to Damascus comes against the backdrop of a policy battle between Iran hawks in the White House and other officials in the administration over how to respond to Tehran’s military advisors and proxies in southern Syria. Some in the State Department and Pentagon want to focus solely on defeating the Islamic State without opening up a wider war with Iran, while some White House officials have argued for a more aggressive approach to prevent Iranian-backed militias from gaining a strategic foothold on the Syria-Iraq border.

Photo Credit: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

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