The White House has claimed that it has identified plans for another chemical weapons attack in Syria. It warned of drastic action should Assad use chemical weapons.
The White House warned late Monday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could be preparing another chemical weapons attack and threatened a harsh response should he proceed.
The White House released a statement accusing Syria of conducting preparations similar to those undertaken before an April 4 chemical attack that killed dozens of civilians and prompted the US to launch a missile strike on a Syrian air base.
"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 spokesman Sean Spicer said in the statement.
"If ... Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price," he said.
The US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, added on Twitter: "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."
White House officials did not comment further on the situation. US-based media, including the Associated Press, LA Times and Buzzfeed, all reported that other US security agencies - such as the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence agencies - were blindsided by the announcement. Ordinarily, the White House would coordinate before issuing such statements.
Russia and Syria respond
The Kremlin dismissed the White House's claims and criticized their threats.
Russisan President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that "such threats to Syria's legitimate leaders are unacceptable."
Peskov also criticized the Trump administration for using the phrase "another chemical weapons attack," arguing that an independent investigation into an alleged attack on April 4 was never conducted despite Russia's calls for one.
"That is why we do not think it is possible to lay the blame on the Syrian armed forces," Peskov said.
Frants Klintsevich, first deputy chairman of the defense and security committee at the upper chamber of the Russian parliament accused the US of "preparing a new attack on the positions of Syrian forces."
A Syrian minister also dismissed the allegations, saying Damascus had not and would not use such arms.
Ali Haidar, the minister for national reconciliation, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the White House statement foreshadowed a "diplomatic battle" that would be waged against Syria in the halls of the UN.
Last alleged attack in April
The White House said that the preparations being undertaken by Syria were similar to those before an alleged chemical attack on April 4.
Assad, backed by his ally Russia, strongly denied his forces were responsible for that attack against the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun, describing it as a "100 percent fabrication."
He repeatedly claimed that his forces had turned over all chemical weapons stockpiles in 2013, under a deal brokered by Russia to avoid threatened US military action. The agreement was later included in a United Nations Security Council resolution.
In response to Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons Trump ordered a cruise missile attack on a Syrian airbase
But US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis previously warned that there was "no doubt" that Syria retained some of its chemical weapons. An Israeli military assessment also found that Assad's regime was still in possession of "a few tons" of chemical weapons.
After the April 4 attack Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on the airbase that the attack was allegedly flown out of. It was the first direct American assault on the Syrian government and Trump's most dramatic military order since becoming president three months earlier.
At the time US officials called the intervention a "one-off" intended to deter future chemical weapons attacks and not an expansion of the US role in the Syrian war.
aw/msh (Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa)