The Pentagon said on Tuesday that the U.S. has seen chemical weapons activity at a Syrian air base used in a past chemical attack. Intelligence reports showed activity at Shayrat airfield over the last several days.
The announcement came the morning after the White House issued a stern warning to Syrian President Bashar Assad, saying it had "potential" evidence that Syria was preparing for another chemical weapons attack, and that if one was carried out the regime would pay a heavy price.
Syria has denied White House allegations that it may be preparing a new chemical attack, insisting again that it has never used such arms.
Ali Haidar, the minister for national reconciliation, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the White House statement foreshadowed a "diplomatic battle" that would be waged against Syria in the halls of the UN.
In the ominous statement issued with no supporting evidence or further explanation, U.S. Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the U.S. had "identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime that would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children."
Reports immediately surfaced from various news outlets citing multiple government and military sources, from the State Department to the Pentagon, saying they were unaware of the intelligence. BuzzFeed News reported that five U.S. defense officials "said they did not know where the potential chemical attack would come from, and were unaware the White House was planning to release its statement" - the piece of intelligence the Pentagon has now cleared up.
The White House added later on Tuesday that it worked with all "relevant" U.S. government agencies on a warning to Syria that it would pay a heavy price for any chemical weapons attack.
"We want to clarify that all relevant agencies ... were involved in the process from the beginning," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said, noting that the State Department, Pentagon, CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence were involved.
"Anonymous leaks to the contrary are false," Sanders said in an emailed statement.
Commenting on the White House statement, U.S. UN ambassador Nikki Hayley said that its goal was to send a message against potential Syrian use of chemical weapons to Syrian president Assad, Russia and Iran.
Russia denounced the U.S. warning that the Syrian leadership will pay a heavy price for any chemical weapons attack, and dismissed White House assertions that a strike was being prepared as "unacceptable."
I am not aware of any information about a threat that chemical weapons can be used," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.
"Certainly, we consider such threats to the legitimate leadership of the Syrian Arab Republic unacceptable."
Iran's foreign minister denounced the White House statement as a "dangerous escalation."
Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on his twitter account on Tuesday that the warning is based on a "fake pretext" and added that it "will only serve ISIS, precisely when it's being wiped out by Iraqi & Syrian people."
Iran is Assad's key regional backer in his fight against his opponents since the Syrian crisis began in 2011.
Also on Tuesday, Assad visited a Russian air base at Hmeymim in western Syria, the presidency said on its Telegram account, his first visit to the base from which Russian jets have supported his war effort.
Photos circulated by pro-government social media accounts showed the Syrian leader sitting in the cockpit of a Russian warplane at the base near Latakia.
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