Decisions how to respond to a suspected chemical attack in Syria would be made “fairly soon,” President Donald Trump said on Thursday, as tensions in the region remained taut in expectation of a possible US strike.
Trump, who on Wednesday tweeted a warning to Russia that missiles toward Syria will be coming “nice, new and smart,” seemed to backpedal in a follow-up tweet on Thursday.
“Never said when an attack on Syria would take place,” he wrote. “Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Moscow does not want an escalation of the situation in Syria, but it could not support “dishonest accusations” that Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons over the weekend in Douma, and that it found no evidence of a chemical-weapons attack.
Source File Name UK PM May says indications are Syrian authorities were behind chemical attack, April 11, 2018 (Reuters)
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the ministry, called the statements from Washington militaristic and said the world should think seriously about the possible consequences of threats.
Zakharova said threats by the United States and France were a violation of the UN Charter, adding that the alleged Israeli air strike on Monday against the T4 Air Base near Homs that killed seven Iranian military personnel had “worsened stability in Syria.”
One Israeli diplomatic source said in response that “what is worsening the stability of Syria is Iran’s aggression and its attempt to entrench itself militarily there in order to threaten Israel and other states.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Iran at a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony on Wednesday not to test Israel. Earlier in the day he told Russian President Vladimir Putin that Jerusalem would not allow Iran to base itself militarily in Syria.
This triggered a response from Ali Shirazi, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s representative to the Quds Force, who was quoted by the Iran’s Fars news agency as threatening to raze Tel Aviv and Haifa.
“If Israel wants to continue its treacherous existence… it should avoid stupid measures,” he said. “If they give excuses to Iran, Tel Aviv and Haifa will be destroyed. Iran can destroy Israel.”
The Quds Force is the espionage and paramilitary wing, in charge of overseas operations, of the elite Revolutionary Guards.
Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron said France had proof the Syrian government carried out the chemical attack in Douma, which aid groups have said killed dozens of people, and will decide whether to strike back when all the necessary information has been gathered.
“We have proof that last week… chemical weapons were used, at least with chlorine, and that they were used by the regime of Bashar Assad,” Macron said, without offering details of any evidence.
“We will need to take decisions in due course, when we judge it most useful and effective,” he told broadcaster TF1.
BRITISH PRIME MINISTER Theresa May, meanwhile, held a special cabinet meeting to weigh whether Britain should join the US and France in possible military action. She has cast the attack in Douma, then rebel-held, just east of the capital Damascus, as barbaric.
Syria and its backers, Russia and Iran, say reports of the attack were fabricated by rebels and rescue workers in Douma and have accused the US of seeking to use it as a pretext to attack the government.
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, however, told Congress on Thursday he believed there was a chemical attack in Syria. But he added a short while later that the US had not made any decision to launch military action in Syria.
Mattis accused Russia of being complicit in Syria’s retention of chemical weapons, despite a 2013 deal that Moscow helped broker requiring Syria to abandon them.
Despite the tension, there were signs of a global effort to head off a direct confrontation between Russia and the West. The Kremlin said a crisis communications link with the US, created to avoid an accidental clash over Syria, was in use.
There was no direct word from Putin on the crisis, though he discussed the situation with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan by phone on Thursday, Interfax news agency said.
Syria’s military has repositioned some air assets to avoid missile strikes, US officials told Reuters. Locating them alongside Russian military hardware might make Washington reluctant to hit them.
Russian ships had left the Tartus naval base in Syria, Interfax news agency quoted a Russian lawmaker as saying. Vladimir Shamanov, who chairs the defense committee of the lower house, said the vessels had departed the Mediterranean base for their own safety, which was “normal practice” when there were threats of attack.
For its part, the Russian military said it had observed movements of US Navy forces in the Gulf. Any US strike would probably involve the navy, given the risk to aircraft from Russian and Syrian air defenses.
A US guided-missile destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, is in the Mediterranean.