US threatens Syria, says Assad is planning chemical weapons attack

WASHINGTON, June 26 (Reuters) - The White House warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Monday that he and his military would "pay a heavy price" if it conducted a chemical weapons attack and said the United States had reason to believe such preparations were underway.

The White House said in a statement released late on Monday the preparations by Syria were similar to those undertaken before an April 4 chemical attack that killed dozens of civilians and prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to order a cruise 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.

"If ... Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price," he said.

RELATED: Horrific aftermath of the April 4 Syria gas attack

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ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A man carries the body of a dead child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH People stand near a dead body, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
A man breathes through an oxygen mask as another one receives treatments, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
A man breathes through an oxygen mask, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH Men stand near dead bodies, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A Syrian child receives treatment at a hospital in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following an attack on April 4, 2017. A suspected chemical attack killed at least 58 civilians including several children in rebel-held northwestern Syria, a monitor said, with the opposition accusing the government and demanding a UN investigation. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
A man holds an injured baby inside a Turkish ambulance as injured Syrian people enter into Turkey from the Cilvegozu border gate in Hatay province, near the Syrian border on April 4, 2017. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on April 4, 2017 condemned a suspected chemical attack in northwestern Syria as an 'inhuman' strike that could endanger peace talks based in the Kazakh capital. / AFP PHOTO / DOGAN NEWS AGENCY / - / Turkey OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A wounded kid receives medical treatment at sahra hospital after Assad Regime forces's attack with chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Abdulghani Arian/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A woman gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A child gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A man carries the body of a dead child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A crater is seen at the site of an airstrike, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Turkish officials with chemical clothes carry a injured man on April 4, 2017 in Hatay province, near the Syrian border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on April 4, 2017 condemned a suspected chemical attack in northwestern Syria as an 'inhuman' strike that could endanger peace talks based in the Kazakh capital. / AFP PHOTO / DOGAN NEWS AGENCY / - / Turkey OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Bodies lie in the parking area of a hospital in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following a suspected toxic gas attack on April 4, 2017. A suspected chemical attack killed at least 58 civilians including several children in rebel-held northwestern Syria, a monitor said, with the opposition accusing the government and demanding a UN investigation. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A child gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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White House officials did not respond to requests for comment on potential U.S. plans or the intelligence that prompted the statement about Syria's preparations for an attack.

Trump, who took to Twitter not long after the statement went out, focused his attention on a Fox News report related to former President Barack Obama and the 2016 election rather than developments in Syria.

Trump ordered the strike on the Shayrat airfield in Syria in April in reaction to what Washington said was a poison gas attack by Assad's government that killed 87 people in rebel-held territory. Syria denied it carried out the attack.

Assad said in an interview with the AFP news agency earlier this year that the alleged April attack was "100 percent fabrication" used to justify a U.S. air strike.

The strike was the toughest direct U.S. action yet in Syria's six-year-old civil war, raising the risk of confrontation with Russia and Iran, Assad's two main military backers.

'ABNORMAL ACTIVITY'

U.S. and allied intelligence officers had for some time identified several sites where they suspected the Assad government may have been hiding newly made chemical weapons from inspectors, said one U.S. official familiar with the intelligence.

The assessment was based in part on the locations, security surrounding the suspect sites and other information which the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined to describe.

The White House warning, the official said, was based on new reports of what was described as abnormal activity that might be associated with preparations for a chemical attack.

Although the intelligence was not considered conclusive, the administration quickly decided to issue the public warning to the Assad regime about the consequences of another chemical attack on civilians in an attempt to deter such a strike, said the official, who declined to discuss the issue further.

At the time of the April strike, U.S. officials called the intervention a "one-off" intended to deter future chemical weapons attacks and not an expansion of the U.S. role in the Syrian war.

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U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Ross (DDG 71) fires a tomahawk land attack missile in Mediterranean Sea on April 7, 2017.

(Robert S. Price/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS)

Battle damage assessment image of Shayrat Airfield, Syria, is seen in this DigitalGlobe satellite image, released by the Pentagon following U.S. Tomahawk Land Attack Missile strikes from Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers, the USS Ross and USS Porter on April 7, 2017.

(DigitalGlobe/Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense/Handout via REUTERS)

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Ross (DDG 71) fires a tomahawk land attack missile in Mediterranean Sea on April 7, 2017.

(Robert S. Price/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS)

Shayrat Airfield in Homs, Syria is seen in this DigitalGlobe satellite image released by the U.S. Defense Department on April 6, 2017 after announcing U.S. forces conducted a cruise missile strike against the Syrian Air Force airfield. DigitalGlobe/Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. MANDATORY CREDIT.

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Ross (DDG 71) fires a tomahawk land attack missile in Mediterranean Sea on April 7, 2017.

(Robert S. Price/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS)

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Ross (DDG 71) fires a tomahawk land attack missile in Mediterranean Sea on April 7, 2017.

(Robert S. Price/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS)

Shayrat Airfield in Homs, Syria is seen in this DigitalGlobe satellite image on February 18, 2017 and released by the U.S. Defense Department on April 6, 2017 after announcing U.S. forces conducted a cruise missile strike against the Syrian Air Force airfield. 

(DigitalGlobe/Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense/Handout via REUTERS)

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea which U.S. Defense Department said was a part of cruise missile strike against Syria on April 7, 2017.

(Ford Williams/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS)

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea, April 7, 2017. Porter, forward-deployed to Rota, Spain, is conducting naval operations in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe.

(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams/Released)

Battle damage assessment image of Shayrat Airfield, Syria, is seen in this DigitalGlobe satellite image, released by the Pentagon following U.S. Tomahawk Land Attack Missile strikes from Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers, the USS Ross and USS Porter on April 7, 2017. 

(DigitalGlobe/Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense/Handout via REUTERS)

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea which U.S. Defense Department said was a part of cruise missile strike against Syria on April 7, 2017.

(Ford Williams/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTER)

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea which U.S. Defense Department said was a part of cruise missile strike against Syria on April 7, 2017.

(Ford Williams/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS)

Battle damage assessment image of Shayrat Airfield, Syria, is seen in this DigitalGlobe satellite image, released by the Pentagon following U.S. Tomahawk Land Attack Missile strikes from Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers, the USS Ross and USS Porter on April 7, 2017. 

(DigitalGlobe/Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense/Handout via REUTERS)

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea which U.S. Defense Department said was a part of cruise missile strike against Syria on April 7, 2017.

(Ford Williams/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS)

Syrian shepherds tend their flock near the damaged Shayrat ('ash-Shairat') airfield at the Syrian government forces military base targeted earlier overnight by US Tomahawk cruise missiles, southeast of the central and third largest Syrian city of Homs, on April 7, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on April 7, 2017 shows a view of the damaged Shayrat ('ash-Shairat') airfield at the Syrian government forces military base targeted earlier overnight by US Tomahawk cruise missiles, southeast of the central and third largest Syrian city of Homs. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
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The United States has taken a series of actions over the past three months demonstrating its willingness to carry out strikes, mostly in self-defense, against Syrian government forces and their backers, including Iran.

The United States ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Twitter: "Any further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia and Iran who support him killing his own people."

Washington has repeatedly struck Iranian-backed militia and even shot down a drone threatening U.S.-led coalition forces since the April military strike. The U.S. military also shot down a Syrian jet earlier this month.

Trump has also ordered stepped-up military operations against the Islamic State militant group and delegated more authority to his generals. (Reporting by Jeff Mason and John Walcott; Additional reporting by Eric Beech, Patricia Zengerle, and Michelle Nichols; Writing by Yara Bayoumy and Jeff Mason; Editing by Paul Tait)

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