White House Officials Misstate the Number of Chemical Attacks by Assad

In the aftermath of the chemical weapons attacks in Idlib province and the subsequent response of cruise missile strikes on a Syrian airbase authorized by President Trump, both National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have asserted that the Syrian government has perpetrated in excess of 50 chemical weapons attacks going back to 2013. In September of that year, Bashar al-Assad struck a deal, with Russia’s assistance, to rid Syria of chemical weapons to avoid air strikes threatened by then-President Obama. However, the actual number of confirmed chemical attacks by the regime appears to be significantly lower than McMaster and Tillerson claimed, and the documentation provided to THE WEEKLY STANDARD by the State Department actually refers to chemical attacks by ISIS, not the Syrian regime.

The reference to 50 attacks was made first by McMaster on April 6 at a joint appearance with Secretary Tillerson in Palm Beach, Florida, after the cruise missile strikes. In response to a question about how the cruise missile strikes might affect Assad’s ability to carry out chemical attacks, McMaster said:

“Obviously, the regime will maintain the certain capacity to commit mass murder with chemical weapons, we think, beyond this particular airfield. … I think what is critical is that—is with the—the President’s decision in response to this mass murderous—mass murder attack, but also in the context of all the previous attacks that have occurred—I think over 50; I think it’s over 50 chemical attacks previously—post 2013 when the UN resolution went into effect.”

When asked that evening about the source of the “over 50 attacks” figure, the State Department referred questions to the White House. Over the next several days, however, the White House ignored several requests for documentation of the claim.

Then in Moscow on Wednesday, April 12, at a press briefing with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, a reporter asked Secretary Tillerson about the harsh rhetoric coming from the Trump administration regarding Syrian president Assad. Tillerson responded:

“Well, I think the perspective from the United States, supported by the facts that we have, are conclusive that the recent chemical weapons attack carried out in Syria was planned and it was directed and executed by Syrian regime forces, and we’re quite confident of that. This is just the latest in a series of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, notwithstanding their use on more than 50 occasions of chlorine bombs, and cluster bombs, and other types of weapons that are intended to maim and kill in the most horrific ways. So I think the characterization is one that President Assad has brought upon himself.”

This time when asked about the source of the 50 attacks claim, the State Department directed THE WEEKLY STANDARD to Page 16 of the statement of Gen. Joseph L. Votel, Commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 9, 2017. While updating the committee on Operation Inherent Resolve, Gen. Votel said (emphasis added):

…ISIS’ use of chemical weapons and its evolving application of available off-the-shelf technologies that include unmanned aerial systems now used for both observation and to achieve lethal effects, poses a growing threat. For example, ISIS has reportedly used chemicals, including sulfur mustard and toxic industrial chemicals, in attacks more than 50 times in Iraq and Syria since 2014. Although the threat of chemical weapons has not slowed the Counter-ISIS Campaign, ISIS could further develop its chemical weapons capability.

When asked about the discrepancy and if the error might undermine the administration’s case, a State Department spokesperson replied, “We can’t speak for Votel or McMaster, or the Administration as a whole. That’s a question for NSC [National Security Council] and DoD [Defense Department].” The spokesperson did not respond to a further question about whether Secretary Tillerson would stand by his remarks despite the problem with the source for his remarks.

THE WEEKLY STANDARD also contacted the White House again for comment on the discrepancy, and this time an NSC official responded and acknowledged McMaster’s misstatement:

[Lieutenant Gen.] McMaster provided an estimate based on recollection during the discussion, but our official assessment is that that Syria has conducted more than 30 attacks using chemicals as a means of warfare since 2013. Although many additional allegations are credible, we have insufficient information to reach a judgment.

The White House has not yet responded to a follow up request for documentation of the 30 attacks cited by the NSC official given that the original claim of 50-plus attacks was in reality a reference to attacks by ISIS and not the Syrian regime.

THE WEEKLY STANDARD also reached out to CENTCOM for the source of Gen. Votel’s statement that “ISIS has reportedly used chemicals, including sulfur mustard and toxic industrial chemicals, in attacks more than 50 times in Iraq and Syria” on March 9. CENTCOM has not yet responded.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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