At 9:04 pm on Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer released an ominous statement saying the US had evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was preparing to again use chemical weapons against his own people. And if Assad went through with it, he should expect the US to retaliate.
“If, however, Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price,” wrote Spicer.
Spicer’s statement came out late last night and set off chaos and confusion, with reporters calling US Central Command — the military command in charge of the Middle East — and the Pentagon for details. Both had nothing to offer.
Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesperson, told reporters this morning that there was “more compelling” evidence in the past 24 hours of chemical weapons activity at Shayrat airbase in Syria, where regime planes had taken off from before launching a chemical attack in April that killed at least 86 people. The comment didn't suggest US intelligence about Syrian preparations for a possible attack was as solid as Spicer had implied. Syria also denies planning for another chemical attack.
Regardless, Spicer has now committed the US to attacking Syria if it launches another chemical weapons attack in the near future. And let’s say Assad does launch that attack: What next?
Does the US openly go to war against the Assad regime, even though the administration’s stated goal is to defeat ISIS? Where would that put the US-Russia relationship, especially since Moscow is on Assad’s side? Would Trump, the champion of an America first foreign policy, allow the US to spend more blood and treasure on a war in the Middle East?
There are no clear answers, for a simple and striking reason: Six months after taking office, Trump’s strategy in Syria remains murky at best. And that's dangerous because the Pentagon — absent clear administration guidance — is shooting down Syrian planes and drones. That could put the US on the path to a war Trump has yet to acknowledge wanting to start.
The US is getting more involved in the Syria war
The US says it’s in Syria only to fight ISIS — nothing more. “There is no other alternative objective,” DOD spokesperson Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway told me.
But if that’s the case, the US is doing a poor job of staying on mission. The Pentagon has gotten into military skirmishes with pro-Assad fighters three times over the past month and shot down a Syrian bomber on June 18. Those first three instances were in self-defense as American commanders on the ground worried about possible attacks by pro-Assad and pro-Iranian fighters on US troops. They shot down the bomber to protect members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed militia working to defeat ISIS.
That episode angered the Russians. Russia’s Ministry of Defense threatened to target US or allied aircraft flying over Syria west of the Euphrates River. The US ignored Moscow’s harsh words and shot down a Syrian drone on June 20, something certain not to go unnoticed in the Kremlin. The US has continued to strike ISIS targets in that region despite Russia’s warnings.
And now Spicer openly tells Assad that the US is willing to strike the Syrian regime if an attack occurs. It’s hard to argue that the US is only in Syria to fight ISIS when the White House puts out statements to the contrary.
There’s a bit of irony here, too. Trump used to accuse former President Barack Obama of allegedly telegraphing his military moves, like his Syria red line (which he did not enforce) or the timeline for troop withdrawals in Afghanistan. Trump claimed he would never do that. “I don’t talk about military response,” the president said during a press conference on February 16.
To be fair, it wasn’t Trump personally who said the US military would act if Assad launched a chemical attack. But his press secretary sure did — and the job of the press secretary is to speak for the president.
The administration can’t speak cohesively on national security
The whole saga is another troubling episode for an administration that has trouble finding a unified voice on national security.
For example, an hour after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson advocated for a peaceful end to the diplomatic crisis over Qatar, Trump slammed the ally for sponsoring terror.
In another instance, some of Trump’s top officials, like National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis, thought Trump would endorse NATO’s Article 5 during a high-profile NATO meeting in May.
So what happened Monday night is not out of the ordinary. The White House made a national security statement the rest of the administration could not stand behind until the following morning (and even then, in a relatively weak way). It’s not farfetched to say confusion and chaos is the new normal in US national security policymaking.