Hours before the White House issued an ominous warning to Syria’s dictator against launching another chemical assault, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave the same message to Bashar Assad’s patron in Moscow, The Daily Beast has learned.
According to a knowledgeable senior administration official, Tillerson warned his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov: the U.S. sees that Russia and Syria may be prepping for another chemical weapons attack; and that there will be consequences if Assad follows through with it.
All this occurred this week as President Donald Trump displayed what two White House officials characterized as relative indifference and passivity towards the subject, instead opting to focus his public and private energies towards fuming at his domestic enemies in the Democratic Party and the “fake news.”
“The president cares more about CNN and the Russia story than [Syria] at the moment,” one official observed.
The first senior administration official would not discuss the underlying intelligence behind the White House’s warning, but said it matched the sort of indications the U.S. had previously observed ahead of Assad’s “prior CW [chemical weapons] attacks,” and the Trump administration opted to deliver a warning through public and private channels.
“Our main aim is to make sure nothing happens,” the official told The Daily Beast.
Lavrov told Tillerson that nothing will happen—“as always,” the official noted.
The Russian foreign ministry emphasized a different aspect of Tillerson’s call.
In a statement issued Monday summarizing the conversation between the two chief diplomats, Moscow said Lavrov urged Tillerson to prevent “provocations” by the U.S. and its allies against “Syrian government forces carrying out operations against terrorists.” According to the Russian foreign ministry, the agenda for the call was to discuss implementing the ceasefire plan that Russia, Turkey and Iran—and not the U.S.—recently negotiated in Kazakhstan.
Several times this month, most recently on June 20, U.S. forces in Syria have moved on Syrian aircraft, ostensibly to protect its own Syrian allies. It twice shot down Iranian-made drones and even downed a piloted Syrian fighter jet, prompting deep concern over escalation between the two major world powers in a proxy conflict.
Hours after the Tillerson-Lavrov call, press secretary Sean Spicer’s own missive said vaguely that Assad and his military would “pay a heavy price” for any “mass murder attack using chemical weapons.” Spicer conspicuously did not mention Russia in his statement.
On April 6, following the first chemical attack Assad launched during Trump’s presidency, U.S. Navy destroyers launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian base used to stage the chemical assault where the Russians also operate. While it is not clear when the U.S. received the underlying intelligence behind Monday’s warning, a Pentagon spokesperson, Marine Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, said that it concerned the same Shayrat airbase near Homs that the American military struck in April—a clear sign that the earlier strike did not eliminate its chemical-weapons capability.