White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Monday signaled a significant shift in US policy toward Syria, saying the Trump administration would respond to the Syrian regime barrel bombing civilians.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has for years used barrel bombs against civilians with impunity, but the new White House administration seems prepared to respond to such attacks.
“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,” Spicer said at Monday’s press briefing.
The shifting US stance on Syria comes a week after President Donald Trump ordered a strike on Shayrat airfield and nearby Syrian military infrastructure in response to a chemical attack attributed to the Assad regime that killed at least 80 people in northwestern Syria.
Sarin gas was thought to have been used in that attack, but the White House has now suggested that lesser weapons might also provoke military action from the US.
When asked whether Trump would be spurred to act in response to conventional warfare from the Assad regime, rather than just chemical warfare, Spicer said, “If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb in to innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president. That is unacceptable.”
Spicer said in a statement to Business Insider that “nothing has changed” in the administration’s posture on the Assad regime.
“The President retains the option to act in Syria against the Assad regime whenever it is in the national interest, as was determined following THAT government’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens,” Spicer said in the statement. “And as the President has repeatedly made clear, he will not be telegraphing his military responses.”
But still, AFP White House correspondent Andrew Beatty tweeted Monday afternoon that “Spicer’s barrel bomb red line referred to barrel bombs containing industrial chemicals like chlorine.”
This still represents a shift from the Obama administration’s policy.
The Assad regime reportedly used barrel bombs filled with chemical weapons during the years Barack Obama was president, and his administration never launched a military strike against the regime. On the contrary, Obama backed off a red line he drew in 2012 on chemical weapons use in Syria, opting instead to cut a deal that was supposed to see Assad removing his arsenal of chemical weapons. That deal seems not to have been effective in light of last week’s attack.
Middle East analyst Aron Lund noted on Twitter that Spicer’s comments Monday were “still a very red line compared to under Obama.”
“Opposition claimed ~130 chlorine bombs 2014-2016, got no US response,” he said.
A UN resolution on chemical weapons in Syria did not stipulate that the regime had to get rid of chlorine as a chemical substance, but it did prohibit the Assad regime from using it as a weapon, which it has done repeatedly in recent years. It now appears that the Trump administration might be willing to act on violations of that resolution.