White House press secretary Sean Spicer has condemned the Syrian government's suspected use of nerve gas on its citizens. In the same breath, Spicer asserted that the potential war crime should be blamed on the foreign policy of former President Barack Obama.
On April 4, dozens of Syrians were killed by an air-dropped chemical agent in the rebel-controlled city of Khan Sheikhoun in the Idlib province. Human rights groups estimate that between 50 and 100 people died from exposure to the gas while an additional 300 were injured, many in critical condition. Children have been confirmed to be among the dead.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime has been accused of committing the attack on the rebel city. The chemical agent is suspected to have been sarin gas.
"These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the last administration's weakness and irresolution," Spicer told reporters from the White House press room, according to The Independent. "President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a 'red line' against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing."
The press secretary declined to state whether or not the Trump administration would take any actions against the Assad regime in retaliation for the attack.
In 2012, Obama had issued an ultimatum that the U.S. would use military force against the Assad regime if they used chemical weapons against Syrian rebels. In 2013, after Assad's forces killed 1,429 Syrians with sarin gas, Obama ultimately decided not to take military action. President Donald Trump had been a vocal opponent of a military strike against Assad at the time, Politico reports.
Instead of a military intervention, the Obama administration brokered a deal that the Syrian regime dismantle its chemical weapons program. Obama's allies had asserted that the change in tact had diffused Assad's chemical weapon capability.
"We ended up getting rid of a weapons-of-mass-destruction threat that was worse than what the CIA wrongly estimated was in Iraq, for which we went to war," said former Pentagon official Derek Chollet. "Why is that considered a failure?"
The Obama administration's arrangement with the Syrian regime calls into question how Assad's forces could still possess the sarin gas. Senior fellow Andy Weber of the Belfer Center, a former Obama administration official, believes that the Assad regime may have refurbished its chemical weapon supply.
"We may have gotten all of it, but they may have made more," Weber told The Daily Beast. "It's a chemical synthesis process they obviously know how to do. Their entire [chemical warfare] program was indigenous. You don't have to have tons of it to deliver a few small bombs."
The former Obama administration official added that the evidence indicates that Assad is guilty of the potential war crime.
"The fact that it was air delivered means it was definitely the regime that did it," Weber concluded.
Both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley had previously indicated that the Trump administration would no longer pursue the Obama administration's efforts to force Assad to step down.
"Do we think he's a hindrance? Yes," Haley said on March 30, according to The Huffington Post. "Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No."
That same day, Tillerson told reporters that the "longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people."
Following the chemical attack, Haley signaled a shift in tone towards Assad, condemning the Syrian president as "a war criminal. What he's done to his people is nothing more than disgusting."
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona has offered a critique of both Obama and Trump's approaches towards the Syrian Civil War.
"We've seen this movie before, when Barack Obama said they would have a red line and they crossed it and he did nothing," McCain told CNN.
The Arizona senator then accused the Trump administration of emboldening Assad, citing Tillerson's previous comments.
"Bashar Assad and his friends, the Russians, take note of what Americans say," McCain continued. "I'm sure they took note of what our Secretary of State said just the other day that the Syrian people would be determining their own future themselves -- one of the more incredible statements I've ever heard."
McCain asserted that that the Assad regime is "encouraged to know the United States is withdrawing and seeking a new arrangement with the Russians. It is another disgraceful chapter in American history and it was predictable."