Trump's Syria Accusation: Assad Denies Planning Chemical Attack, U.S. Military Reportedly Caught Off Guard

Senior Russian lawmaker dismisses Trump's allegations as 'provocation'; Defense Secretary Mattis says that U.S. would continue to provide weapons after Raqqa battle is over

White House spokesman Sean Spicer gestures during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, on June 20, 2017
AFP PHOTO / NICHOLAS KAMM

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.

The White House issued a stern warning to Syrian President Bashar Assad on Monday night, saying it had "potential" evidence that Syria was preparing for another chemical weapons attack.

In an ominous statement issued with no supporting evidence or further explanation, 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."

However, 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.

According to BuzzFeed News, 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."

"Several State Department officials typically involved in coordinating such announcements said they were caught completely off guard by the warning, which didn't appear to be discussed in advance with other national security agencies," added the Los Angeles Times. "Typically, the State Department, the Pentagon, and U.S. intelligence agencies would all be consulted before the White House issued a declaration sure to ricochet across foreign capitals."

The New York Times wrote it is "unclear how closely held the intelligence regarding a potential chemical attack was" after similarly reporting that "several military officials were caught off guard by the statement."

"While the White House's motivation in releasing the highly unusual statement is uncertain, it is possible that Mr. Trump or his advisers decided a public warning to Mr. Assad might deter another chemical strike," concluded the New York Times. 

The White House responded Tuesday morning 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.

In Moscow Tuesday, a senior Russian lawmaker dismissed the warning as "provocation."

Assad had denied responsibility for the April 4 attack in the rebel-held Idlib province that killed dozens of people, and Russia, Assad's key backer, sided with him. Days later, President Donald Trump launched a retaliatory cruise missile strike on a Syrian government-controlled air base.

Frants Klintsevich, first deputy chairman of the defense and security committee in the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, on Tuesday accused the United States of "preparing a new attack on the positions of Syrian forces."

In comments to state-owned RIA Novosti, he added: "Preparations for a new cynical and unprecedented provocation are underway."

The U.S. strike was the first direct American assault on the Syrian government and Trump's most dramatic military order since becoming president months before.

The attack came after years of heated debate and deliberation in Washington over intervention in the bloody civil war. Chemical weapons have killed hundreds of people since the start of the conflict.

The U.S. is providing air support and arms to Kurdish-led Syrian forces who are fighting to drive the Islamic State group from Raqqa, the extremists' self-styled capital.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday that Washington would continue to provide weapons after the Raqqa battle is over. His comments were likely to anger Turkey, which views the Kurdish fighters as an extension of the insurgency raging in its southeast.

On Monday, Trump had dinner with Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and other top officials as he hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House.

Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov talked earlier Monday about the need to secure a cease-fire in Syria, fight extremist groups and prevent the use of chemical weapons, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, followed up Spicer's statement with a Twitter warning: "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."

Less than an hour after Spicer issued the statement, Trump was back to tweeting about the 2016 campaign, denouncing investigations into potential collusion between Moscow and his campaign aides as a "Witch Hunt!"