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Sean Spicer can’t possibly mean what he just said about Syria. Can he?

Sean Spicer Holds Daily Press Briefing At The White House (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer just announced a policy that would mean constant and unending US involvement in Syria’s civil war — if the Trump team is actually serious about it.

During a daily press briefing on Monday, Spicer was asked what Bashar al-Assad’s regime could do to trigger another bombing attack like the one last Thursday. Would it have to be a chemical weapons attack, or would more conventional bombings targeting civilians also trigger US retaliation?

Spicer’s answer was surprising. He said that additional US intervention could be triggered if Assad were to use poison gas on civilians again — or if he were to use a kind of conventional explosive called a barrel bomb (emphasis mine):

Q: Is the red line for this White House chemical warfare? Is conventional warfare enough to get the president to go further than this White House is going?

SPICER: I think the president has been very clear that there are a number of lines that were crossed last week. He’s not going to sit down — you saw this with the last administration, they drew these red lines, and then the red lines were run over. ... The answer is that if you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president. That is unacceptable.

Barrel bombs are containers filled with explosives and sometimes metal, dropped from helicopters, often on civilian areas. Assad’s air force uses them extremely frequently — his forces dropped 13,000 of them in 2016 alone, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. That’s roughly 36 barrel bombs a day.

By comparison, the chemical weapons attack last week was the first use of banned nerve agents by the Syrian government since 2013. Given the rarity of such attacks, threatening US retaliation for each one makes a certain kind of sense — especially if your goal is only to send a signal that chemical weapons use is unacceptable without getting more deeply involved in the civil war.

But if Trump’s new policy is that the US will bomb Assad every time there’s a barrel bomb attack that kills civilians, as Spicer plainly suggested, then the US will be bombing Assad every day. America will be engaged in a full-scale war against Assad, whether the Trump people call it that or not.

This policy seems so at odds with everything else the administration is saying — all officials, including Spicer, have suggested the US doesn’t intend to topple Assad by force — that it’s hard to believe Spicer meant what he said. Yet he repeated the line later in the briefing, saying that barrel bombs could trigger “further action” from the United States.

The simplest explanation is that Spicer just doesn’t know what a barrel bomb is. That he assumes it’s some kind of chemical weapon, or somehow more evil than any other kind of bomb Assad regularly uses on civilians. If that’s true, then Spicer’s screw-up has put Trump in a deeply awkward place. His own press secretary just declared barrel bomb use a “red line” — yet Assad is almost certain to use barrel bombs against civilians in the next 24 hours.

Either the Trump administration has to publicly repudiate Spicer’s comments, humiliating their press secretary and further undercutting his ability to speak for the president (which is his entire job). Or they ignore it, and leave the kinds of actions by Assad that will trigger US intervention radically unclear.

Update: AFP White House correspondent Andrew Beatty reports that the White House has since clarified that “Spicer's barrel bomb red line referred to barrel bombs containing industrial chemicals like chlorine.” Which, when you read the question and answer above, is pretty clearly not what Spicer was actually saying, but is certainly a smart way to walk back what was likely a misstatement that implied a radical policy shift.

Watch: Who's fighting in Syria and why