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White House Releases Unexpected Statement About Syria


Late last night, the White House released an unexpected statement about Syria. The administration said it believes that the Assad regime might be preparing to wage another chemical weapons attack. The statement went on to say if such an attack is carried out, Assad and his military would pay a heavy price.

Let's begin our coverage in Washington with NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. And, Scott, this late-night, public warning about what a country might do - this is weird, right?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It was certainly unusual, David. The statement came from Press Secretary Sean Spicer a little bit before 10 p.m. And you're right. He said the United States had observed possible preparations similar to what they saw back in early April, when the Assad regime carried out what appeared to be a deadly sarin gas attack against its own people. Of course, at that time, the Trump administration responded by firing dozens of Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base from which that attack was launched.

GREENE: Well, so might we be getting close to seeing that again? Has the administration given any indication about what it means when it says that Assad could face a heavy price here?

HORSLEY: There's not a lot of detail, but the White House certainly seems to be trying to put the Assad regime on notice that another chemical weapons attack, a mass murder by chemical weapons, as Sean Spicer said, would be met with a similar response.

The military is being very tight-lipped about this. A spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which has authority in that part of the world, said only that the military has nothing to add to the White House statement. However, the U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, came out with a tweet about 45 minutes after the Spicer statement in which she said if there are further attacks, Assad would be blamed but also Russia and Iran - the supporters of the Assad regime.

GREENE: Oh, Assad's allies, yeah - tying them in. Wow.

HORSLEY: Exactly.

GREENE: Well, let's turn to the region, that part of the world Scott, if you can stay with us. NPR's Alison Meuse is in Beirut. Alison, what kind of reaction, if any, has there been from Syria?

ALISON MEUSE, BYLINE: We haven't heard any official reaction from the Syrian government yet or its allies. So we're waiting to see what they might have to say.

GREENE: Well, we should remind our listeners that the United States is already involved in fighting ISIS in Syria. And we have this airstrike this morning - right? - in eastern Syria. But this is separate from this statement because it's not targeting the Assad regime. Explain what's happening there.

MEUSE: Exactly, so the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the conflict, says that an airstrike believed to have been carried out by the U.S.-led coalition hit an ISIS prison in eastern Syria. The Rights Monitor says dozens of people were killed - many of them civilian prisoners. Now this is a separate anti-ISIS battle being waged by the U.S.-led coalition. And in this same area, you have Syrian government forces also fighting ISIS.

So it goes to show how complex the battlefield is but also how, for the U.S, the main priority remains the fight against ISIS. And all parties have been accused of civilian casualties, and indeed the U.S.-led coalition has said there have been hundreds of civilian casualties in that war effort.

GREENE: All right, I want to turn back to NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley who's still on the line. Scott, the context here is so interesting because you had President Obama with his now famous red line when it comes to chemical attacks in Syria. And President Trump kind of held President Obama's feet to the fire suggesting that those were blank threats. Is this now Donald Trump's own red line making these threats?

HORSLEY: It certainly has echoes of that. Of course, we should remember that back in 2013 when President Obama kind of walked up to the red line and threatened to carry out retaliation against the Assad regime for using chemical weapons at that time, Donald Trump warned the Obama White House not to retaliate, not to get bogged down in the Syrian civil war. He said we've got our own problems.

And in its statement last night, the White House did emphasize that the real mission of the United States in Syria continues to be the elimination of ISIS. They saw this as kind of a sideshow. But the statement said if, as - if Assad conducted another mass murder by chemical weapons, he and his military would pay a heavy price.

GREENE: All right, covering again the statement from the White House last night threatening the Assad regime with some sort of price if they do carry out a chemical attack and suggesting, the White House did - that they have some kind of evidence that that attack could be in the works.

NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley in Washington and NPR's Alison Meuse in Beirut, thank you both.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

MEUSE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.