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Spicer Seeks to Clarify 'Barrel Bomb' Remarks on Syria

Sean Spicer sought to clarify his comments after telling reporters Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of barrel bombs could prompt U.S. military action.
Image: Sean Spicer holds a briefing at the White House in Washington
White House spokesman Sean Spicer holds a briefing at the White House.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer sought to clarify his comments on Monday after telling reporters that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of barrel bombs against his own people could prompt further U.S. military action.

“If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president,” Spicer said at the White House during his daily press briefing.

Spicer also said "the sight of people being gassed and blown away by barrel bombs ensures that if we see this kind of action again, we hold open the possibility of future action."

Several hours later, Spicer tried to clarify his earlier remarks about the frequently used barrel bombs — not only chemical weapons — possibly triggering a second U.S. strike on Syria.

"Nothing has changed in our posture," Spicer said in a statement. "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. And as the President has repeatedly made clear, he will not be telegraphing his military responses."

President Donald Trump ordered a military strike last week, launching 59 Tomahawk missiles on a Syrian airbase, after graphic video of a chemical weapons attack that killed dozens, including many children. The White House told reporters over the weekend that its intelligence pointed to Assad and the Syrian government as having ordered the chemical attack.

The White House press secretary's use of "barrel bombs" at his briefing drew scrutiny from those trying to understand the administration's doctrine in the Middle East, specifically because barrel bombs have been used often in the ongoing Syrian civil war.

Barrel bombs are improvised, unguided containers packed with explosives and sometimes shrapnel frequently used by the Syrian Army. They are often dropped from helicopters.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimated that 12,958 barrel bombs were dropped by the Assad regime in Syria in 2016, or about 35 bombs per day.

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Spicer's comments come amid some confusion about whether the U.S. strike on Syria is part of a larger policy shift in the region.

Trump prided himself during the campaign on saying he would not telegraph U.S. military movements or strikes, saying he preferred to appear to be unpredictable to keep the enemy off balance.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed to advocate different positions in Sunday show appearances when it comes to the White House supporting regime change in Syria. Haley spoke of the necessity of Assad being removed from power, while Tillerson put forth the priority of defeating ISIS.

Spicer on Monday attempted to bridge the two views, saying they were not mutually exclusive but that he couldn't imagine a stable and peaceful Syria where Assad was still in power. Asked if it was possible to defeat ISIS with Assad still in power, Spicer told reporters: "Yes, sure."