The Syrian and Russian governments have responded to allegations by White House officials made earlier this week that the Syrian regime was planning to carry out a chemical weapons attack, with the Russians threatening retaliation to any “preemptive” American strike.
“We will react with dignity, in proportion to the real situation that may take place,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a press conference on Wednesday.
“I expect that our partners in the region—American, European—will also have an open and comprehensible approach, aimed at de-escalation through normalization of the humanitarian situation,” Lavrov added, perhaps charitably.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters he was “not aware of any information” about a chemical attack, adding that “such threats to Syria’s legitimate leaders are unacceptable.”
The claims initially emanated from the White House on Monday, when officials said they had intelligence that indicated the Syrians were preparing for a chemical weapons attack and warned that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would “pay a heavy price” if his military did so.
The next day, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley took to Twitter to warn the Syrians, Iranians and Russians that attacks on Syrian civilians would be blamed on all three countries, creating what could be a pretext for a major escalation of hostilities.
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.
— Nikki Haley (@nikkihaley) June 27, 2017
While Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said on Wednesday that Assad heeded the American warning and decided not to go through with the attack, telling reporters “It appears that they took the warning seriously,” the Syrian government denies there was ever a planned attack in the first place.
A Syrian Foreign Ministry source was quoted on Syrian state television saying Washington’s claims about the planned attack were misleading, “devoid of any truth and not based on any facts.” Another Syrian official said the allegation was an American ploy to justify a new attack on pro-Assad forces.
A stranger aspect of the story resides in major inconsistencies in the narrative between government agencies. The White House came out with the claim on Monday night, but both the Pentagon and State Department, who would typically coordinate such an important press release, were left in the dark, completely unaware of the matter until the public announcement.
The White House claims “all relevant agencies […] were involved in the process from the beginning,” but a report from BuzzFeed cites five U.S. defense officials who claimed to know nothing about the White House press release, including one Central Command official who had “no idea” about plans for a chemical attack.
The State Department, according to several officials who spoke to the Los Angeles Times, was also apparently caught off guard by the White House’s Monday announcement.
While it’s a good sign that the Defense Secretary said the planned attack was averted, whether or not it ever existed in the first place, this may merely be a trial balloon floated by the administration to lay the ground for future escalation, floating the idea of yet another chemical attack, this time warranting a major U.S. response that would seek to punish Iran and Russia in addition to the Syrian state.
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