WASHINGTON—The Trump administration held out the prospect Monday of wider retaliation against Syria and signaled a new push to remove the country’s divisive leader ahead of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s meetings with Damascus’s Russian allies.
Coming days after the first deliberate American military strike against the forces of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, the trip by Mr. Tillerson has taken on far-reaching strategic and diplomatic importance, both in defining U.S.-Russian relations and in potentially clarifying the Trump administration’s mixed signals over the Syrian civil war.
Mr. Tillerson met in Italy Monday with members of the Group of Seven leading nations—the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Canada, Japan and Italy. He planned to meet Tuesday with those allies along with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and Jordan to discuss Syria before traveling to Moscow, where he is expected to address strains surrounding Syria, Ukraine and alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. election.
The White House appeared to broaden the range of Syrian regime actions that could trigger a U.S. military response as a follow-on to Friday’s airstrike, ordered by President Donald Trump after a suspected Syrian chemical attack. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Monday that another chemical attack or the use of barrel bombs—crude but powerful explosive devices often packed with shrapnel—could result in another U.S. strike.
The administration said later that Mr. Spicer’s statement wasn’t intended as a change in U.S. posture. Mr. Spicer didn’t specify whether he meant all barrel bombs or those used as chemical weapons.
The administration issued similarly mixed signals on the future of Mr. Assad. Mr. Spicer said at a briefing that “our number one priority” is to defeat Islamic State, reiterating recent administration statements, and that Mr. Assad’s future would be decided later.
Later Monday, Mr. Trump spoke with U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, and the two agreed “that a window of opportunity now exists in which to persuade Russia that its alliance with Assad is no longer in its strategic interest,” according to a statement by the prime minister’s office.
They also agreed that Mr. Tillerson’s visit to Moscow offers a chance for progress toward a “lasting political settlement” in Syria.
Last week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the U.S. would soon announce additional Syria sanctions but offered no details on the measures or indications of new penalties against Russia. The U.S. imposed two earlier rounds of sanctions on Russia, the first after Moscow’s 2014 move to annex Crimea and the second in response to last year’s alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election.
Mr. Spicer declined to say Monday whether the U.S. favored imposing further sanctions on Russia.
“I’ll let Secretary Tillerson talk about his meeting with Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov,” Mr. Spicer told reporters. “Look, we’ll have plenty of time to discuss how those talks go.”
Mr. Spicer declined to detail the agenda for talks between the top diplomats, but said Mr. Trump doesn’t want to “telegraph all the cards that he has.”
European Union officials noted Monday that any decision on further sanctions would have to be approved by all of its member states.
The White House hasn’t demanded Mr. Assad’s removal and has said the U.S. believes it can defeat Islamic State while Mr. Assad remained in power. However, Mr. Spicer indicated the administration’s preference for a change in the Syrian leadership.
“I can’t imagine a stable and peaceful Syria where Bashar al-Assad is in power,” he said.
Following the U.S. strike on a Syrian air base last week, Mr. Spicer said Monday that Syria’s use of barrel bombs also could trigger a U.S. response.
“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,” Mr. Spicer told reporters at the daily press briefing.
He later added: “I will tell you, the answer is that if you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, you will see a response from this president.”
Mr. Spicer would not say how Mr. Trump might respond but said the use of chemical weapons or barrel bombs “is unacceptable.”
In a statement issued after Mr. Spicer’s news briefing, the White House said nothing had changed in its posture, despite the barrel bomb warning.
“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,” it said.
While Mr. Assad rarely has used chemical weapons, his military has come to embrace the use of barrel bombs as a staple of its arsenal. A precise count of the number of bombs used by the regime was not available Monday, and conventional bombs are sometimes reported by observers to be barrel bombs.
Still, the estimated tally is considerable. According to estimates by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the Syrian regime dropped nearly 13,000 barrel bombs in 2016, representing dozens each day.
The bombs are crude and cheaply constructed, typically dropped out of helicopters as an attack that does not require high-tech delivery methods as would rockets, missiles or even conventional bombs.
Mr. Assad repeatedly has been criticized at the United Nations for his use of barrel bombs and indiscriminate attacks on civilians.
On Monday, at a memorial in Tuscany, Italy, to a Nazi massacre whose victims included more than 100 children, Mr. Tillerson pledged to hold people accountable for targeting innocent people. His comments followed public statements by Mr. Trump that photos of babies harmed in the chemical attacks had deeply affected him.
“We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” he said.
—Jason Douglas in London, Julian E. Barnes in Brussels and Carol E. Lee in Washington contributed to this article.
Appeared in the Apr. 11, 2017, print edition as ‘U.S. Hints at Tougher Stance On Syria.’
Tags: Assad, Boris Johnson, Britain, chemical weapons, Donald Trump, G7, Iran, Lavrov, Putin, remove assad, Rouhani, Russia, Sean Spicer, Syrian chemical attack, Tillerson, Trump administration, U. S., U.S. Hints at Tougher Stance on Syria, UK