(CNSNews.com) – A White House warning late on Monday night about “potential preparations” by the Assad regime for a chemical weapons attack comes at a particularly tense time in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s Russia ally a week ago effectively warned that it could shoot down U.S. aircraft there.
“The United States has 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,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement, adding that the activities were similar to those taken by the regime before a deadly toxic gas attack in Idlib province on April 4.
Spicer reiterated that U.S. forces are in Syria to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL).
“If, however, Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price,” he said.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley in a tweet added that Assad’s allies would be responsible too.
“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,” she tweeted.
In response to queries, Combined Joint Taskforce–Operation Inherent Resolve – the U.S.-led mission to destroy ISIS in Iraq and Syria – told CNSNews.com it had “nothing to add to the WH statement.”
There was no immediate reaction from the Assad regime or Moscow, although Russian state media reported briefly on the White House statement.
Iran’s state-funded Press TV commented that the U.S. warning “risks sparking a major confrontation between parties to the Syrian conflict and complicating efforts aimed at resolving it.”
It also noted that the U.S. military presence in Syria is “unsanctioned” by the Assad regime, a point frequently made by Russia as well.
Spicer’s statement prompted some strong reactions on social media, as critics poured scorn on the claims, and accused the administration of trying to distract attention from other issues.
“White House Threatens to Murder More Syrians Over Imaginary ‘Chemical Weapons Attacks’” ran a headline on a piece on Russia Insider, a site run by western expats in Russia.
Last April Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airbase after accusing the regime of a chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhun, Idlib province that killed more than 70 people.
“When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal – people were shocked to hear what gas it was,” the president said before the airstrike. “That crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line, many, many lines.”
The regime denied responsibility for the toxic gas attack, and Russia also disputed the claim.
Both suggested other scenarios, including that the gas was released after a rebel chemical weapons storage facility was bombed, or that it was a false-flag operation designed to provide justification for U.S. military intervention.
For its part, the Trump administration said it had high confidence that at least one munition containing sarin, a lethal gas, had been dropped from a regime Sukhoi Su-22 warplane.
Four days after two U.S. Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean targeted the Syrian airbase with 59 Tomahawks, Spicer warned that fresh atrocities could bring further retaliation.
“The sight of people being gassed and blown away by barrel bombs ensures that if we see this kind of action again, we hold open the possibility of future action,” he told reporters on April 10.
After the airstrike, Russia and Iran warned that any further such action against their ally in Damascus would cross their own “red lines,” according to a Reuters report.
“What America waged in an aggression on Syria is a crossing of red lines,” the pro-Assad alliance said in a joint statement. “From now on we will respond with force to any aggressor or any breach of red lines from whoever it is and America knows our ability to respond well.”
More recently, Russia laid down another red line in Syria.
Angered by the June 18 U.S. shooting down of a Syrian regime aircraft – believed to be the first such action by the U.S. military in nearly two decades – Russia warned the U.S. that its aircraft would be treated as potential targets if they operated west of the Euphrates River.
That part of Syria includes the area where the U.S. is training local forces to fight against ISIS, and U.S. and coalition planes operate in those skies.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a phone conversation with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday drew attention to “actions of the U.S.-led coalition that violated the sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic,” according to a Russian foreign ministry readout.
Both Russia and Assad’s other main ally, Iran, have fired missiles at purported terror targets in Syria in recent days – in Iran’s case, launching missiles at a foreign target for the first time in decades.