A "cryptic" warning to Bashar al-Assad?

As with so many stories in the Trump era, this one may wind up being less about the actual facts on the ground than how much of the press chooses to cover it. The headline seems simple enough, particularly as provided by NBC News: White House Warns Syria Against Chemical Attack ‘Preparations.’

I’m not sure why preparations is put in scare quotes, but the essence of what’s being revealed seems basic enough.

The United States has spotted “potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack” by the Syrian government, the White House said in an unusual statement Monday night.

It warned that Syria would “pay a heavy price” if any such attack proceeds.

In the brief statement, the White House gave no details of the purported preparations or of how they had been detected. It said only that “the activities are similar to preparations the regime made before its April 4, 2017, chemical weapons attack.”

I’ll get to what this probably portends in a moment, but it’s worth noting that some of the other coverage was considerably more… let’s just say “skeptical” to be charitable here. I first saw the story when I flipped on my television to MSNBC this morning. (I know… I know… but I can’t help myself.) They were talking about the same details, but qualifying the announcement with plenty of caveats about how the public warning was issued “without anything to back it up.”

It’s very much the same as the way the story was presented in an Associated Press release. (Emphasis added)

In an ominous statement issued with no supporting evidence or further explanation, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the U.S. had “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.” …

The White House offered no details on what prompted the warning and spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said she had no additional information Monday night.

“Ominous?” Maybe. But… no supporting evidence or further explanation? Where do you suppose the information about the potential attack preparations came from? Do the members of the press believe that Assad is posting these plans on his Facebook page and everyone else just happened to miss it? Or are they suggesting that this might somehow be something that President Trump dreamed up on his own and decided to send out his Press Secretary to float as a trial balloon?

Obviously the military and/or our intelligence community picked up on something. That may have come from satellite, spy plane or drone reconnaissance. Even more daunting is the possibility that it came from deep sources on the ground inside of Syria. Either way, does the press now expect the President to just lay everything on the table before they’re willing to take him at his word? That would expose whatever channel was used to gather the information and very possibly cut it off in the future. (With the “cutting off” hopefully not involving somebody’s head.)

If you want to question anything about this move it would be why the White House chose to make such an announcement through public channels rather than reaching out to Assad through more discreet diplomatic connections. But we’re sort of past the point of those sorts of polite conversations in Syria, aren’t we? We have a couple of important data points to draw on here which answer the critical question.

Does Assad have chemical weapons and would he use them?

Of course he does. Barely two months ago he unleashed an attack on the village of Khan Sheikhoun which the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) determined utilized “sarin or a chemically similar banned toxin.” The idea that that was his last batch or that he’s somehow turned over a new leaf and gotten rid of them all is ludicrous. There are few times when we can truly say that “the science is settled” but we’ve already got the smoking gun on this one.

That leaves us with the question of how the White House should handle this unstable tyrant. If Trump had kept this under the covers and waited for the attack to happen, he’d be forced to fire off an assault on Syria again in response. They would respond by saying there was no chemical attack, it’s all American propaganda, blah, blah, blah. Russia would immediately back up Assad’s story (which they are already doing this morning, by the way) and we’d be right back where we are now. But by letting the entire world know that Assad is probably gearing up for another WMD deployment in advance, if it comes, and when we inevitably strike back, we’ve at least got our bases covered. And if this actually dissuades Assad from another chemical attack then lives will have been saved.

Why is this such a problem for so many people to grasp?