US President Donald Trump warned Wednesday that “missiles will be coming” in response to an alleged chemical attack in Syria, raising the stakes in an increasingly perilous face-off with Russia.
With punitive US military action seemingly imminent, Russia scrambled to deflect blame from its ally Bashar al-Assad and, according to a monitor group, Syrian forces evacuated key defense buildings in Damascus.
Trump’s warlike tweets came in response to a warning from Russia’s ambassador to Beirut, who took to a television network run by the armed group Hezbollah to declare that any US missiles would be shot down “as well as the sources they were fired from.”
If the US action follows the pattern of a previous punitive strike on Syria last year, it will begin with a salvo of cruise missiles fired from American warships in the Mediterranean, as Trump implied when he tweeted they would be “nice, new and ‘smart’.”
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the Pentagon is ready to provide options for a Syria strike in response to the suspected chemical attack, but noted the US and its allies are still gathering information.
Opponents of unilateral US action called an emergency closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council for later Thursday.
Meanwhile, Moscow said the formerly rebel-held district of Eastern Ghouta — including Douma, the target of Saturday’s attack — had been “totally stabilized” and would soon be patrolled by Russian military police.
But the Russian army continued to deny their side’s latest victory came after Assad launched a chemical attack on the last rebel-held pocket of the enclave in the Damascus suburbs, instead accusing the White Helmets civil defense organization of staging the massacre.
Trump’s spokeswoman dismissed this idea, and pointedly refused to acknowledge that concern about the risks of a direct confrontation with Russia would hold the US military back.
“The intelligence provided certainly paints a different picture,” she said. “The president holds Syria and Russia responsible for this chemical weapons attack.”
But while the Russian president’s lieutenants continued to up the ante with threats and allegations, Vladimir Putin himself adopted a more statesmanlike tone, in remarks to new ambassadors presenting their credentials at the Kremlin.
“The state of the world cannot but provoke concern,” he said.