The White House on Monday sought to clarify a suggestion that Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s use of barrel bombs against civilians could prompt a response by the U.S. military.
“If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters when asked what constitutes President Trump’s “red line’ for military action.
Hours later, Spicer tried to clear up his comments, which implied a significant change in U.S. policy toward Syria.
“Nothing has changed in our posture,” the spokesman wrote in an email. “The president retains the option to act in Syria against the Assad regime whenever it is in the national interest, as was determined following THAT government's use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.”
Spicer added that President Trump “will not be telegraphing his military responses."
Assad’s forces have frequently used barrel bombs in the country’s six-year civil war.
One watchdog, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, reported that 13,000 barrel bombs were dropped in the country in 2016, killing hundreds of people.
The bombs, which resemble improvised explosive devices, are seen as targeting civilians because they hit an indiscriminate area.
They are believed to be used more frequently than chemical weapons.
Trump ordered a military attack on a Syrian airfield last week after a chemical weapons attack killed dozens of civilians. The Syrian government has been blamed for the attack.
Lawmakers, such as Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainDole to lie in state in Capitol Rotunda Bob Dole: A great leader of the 'Greatest Generation' The bully who pulls the levers of Trump's mind never learns MORE (R-Ariz.), have urged a more forceful U.S. response to the use of barrel bombs by Assad.
McCain has called for setting up a safe zone in Syria that might protect civilians from chemical and more conventional weapons.
Assad's forces have also been known to drop barrel bombs containing chemical agents. One such attack is believed to have occurred earlier this month.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in separate interviews have said President Trump is concerned about the loss of civilian life in Syria regardless of the weapons.
But they stopped short of suggesting the use of barrel bombs would definitively draw a response.
Tillerson, in a response to a question from CBS's John Dickerson on "Face the Nation" that specifically raised barrel bombs, said that by using such weapons Assad would be undermining his own legitimacy.