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How US Mixed Messages Almost Led To A Showdown In Syria

The U.S. may have prompted Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s recent chemical weapons preparations with unclear messages from different government agencies.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer released a message late Monday warning the Syrian regime that U.S. intelligence indicated another chemical weapons attack was imminent, warning Assad that if he “conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price.”

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The warning came after Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Colonel John Dillon appeared to deliver a conciliatory message to the regime June 23. Dillon expressed the U.S. sentiment that if Assad wanted to fight ISIS in Syria “that would be welcome,” in a seemingly positive statement of the regime’s actions.

Kyle Orton, senior fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, drew a link between the Assad regime’s preparations and Dillon’s June 23 statement in an interview with Military Times. Orton described Assad’s actions as “reminiscent of the last go around, when senior Trump officials said they accepted Assad staying and then two days later he attacked with sarin.”

Dillon did not withdraw his support for regime fighting against ISIS Thursday, telling reporters “there are plenty of ISIS fighters to be defeated still, so if we have other elements that are going to do that, that means there are fewer ISIS fighters left for us to defeat.”

Assad ordered a chemical weapons strike on civilians in early April, days after Secretary of State Tillerson dropped official U.S. government opposition to his regime. The “longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people,” Tillerson declared at the time. United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley also explicitly declared that “our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.”

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a few days later we see this,” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said of the chemical attack, following Tillerson’s comments. Tillerson and Haley have both modified their rhetoric since the April 7 cruise missile strike, saying there is “no role” for him in the future of Syria, but emphasizing that the U.S. will not do anything to force regime change.

Pentagon officials repeatedly emphasize that the U.S. is in Syria solely to defeat ISIS, and has no ulterior motives. However, anti-ISIS operations continue to brush up against Iranian backed forces, the Syrian regime and Russia, sending confusing signals to the Assad regime.

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