(UPI) — The White House accused the Syrian government of preparing a chemical weapons attack against rebels in that country’s civil war and warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that he will “pay a heavy price” if such an attack is carried out.

“The United States has 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 activities are similar to preparations the regime made before its April 4, 2017, chemical weapons attack,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement.

“As we have previously stated, the United States is in Syria to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” the statement continued. “If, however, Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price.”

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, extended the warning to the Syrian government’s allies.

“Any further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia & Iran who support him killing his own people,” she tweeted.

The New York Times reported that several military officials were “caught off guard” by the statement.

Trump previously accused the Syrian government of launching a chemical weapons attack on April 4. That attack, which the Syrian government denied, killed more than 80 civilians, including many children.

Trump responded by firing 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air force base believed to be the launching point for the plane that conducted the chemical attack.

“Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children … even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered. No child of God should ever suffer such horror,” Trump said at the time.

The U.S. military’s stated purpose in Syria is to defeat Islamic State, but has stepped up attacks on the Syrian government in recent months as it continues to support anti-government rebels.

The latest attack occurred on June 18, when a U.S. fighter jet shot down a Syrian government warplane that had attacked rebels supported by the United States.

Copyright 2016 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.

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