SUN 24 - 3 - 2019
Date: Apr 12, 2018
Source: The Daily Star
Mideast braces for U.S.-Russia faceoff
WASHINGTON / BEIRUT: U.S. President Donald Trump warned Russia Wednesday of imminent military action in Syria over a suspected poison gas attack, declaring that missiles “will be coming” and lambasting Moscow for standing by Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The White House pushed back against suggestions that Trump had broadcast his plans for military strikes via Twitter, saying he had not laid out a timetable for action, that all options were still on the table and he was assessing how to respond.

Trump was reacting to a warning from Russia that any U.S. missiles fired at Syria over the deadly assault on the rebel enclave of Douma near Damascus would be shot down and the launch sites targeted.

His comments raised the prospect of direct conflict over Syria for the first time between the two world powers backing opposing sides in the 7-year-old civil war, which has aggravated instability across the Middle East.

“Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’” Trump wrote on Twitter.

“You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!” Trump tweeted, referring to Moscow’s alliance with Assad.

In response, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said: “Smart missiles should fly toward terrorists, not toward the lawful government.”

Damascus and Moscow have denied any responsibility and say the incident is bogus.

Dozens of people in Douma died and hundreds were wounded in the attack, according to the World Health Organization.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, striking a cautious tone after Trump’s threat of missile strikes, said the United States was assessing intelligence about the suspected attack.

Asked if he had seen enough evidence to blame Assad, Mattis said: “We’re still working on this.”

The U.S. military was ready to provide military options, if appropriate, he added.

It was unclear if his remarks reflected unease about Trump’s move toward military action. Two U.S. government sources told Reuters that the United States still did not have 100 percent solid evidence of what nerve agent was used in Syria and where it came from. However, there is some evidence it was sprayed from helicopters, they said.

In Moscow, the head of a Russian parliamentary Defense Committee Vladimir Shamanov said Russia was in direct contact with the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff about the situation.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said pro-government forces were emptying main airports and military air bases.

The Syrian military has also been repositioning some air assets to avoid possible missile strikes, U.S. officials told Reuters.

The Russian military said it had observed movements of U.S. Navy forces in the Gulf. Any U.S. strike would probably involve the navy, given the risk to aircraft from Russian and Syrian air defenses. A U.S. guided-missile destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, is in the Mediterranean.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry accused the United States, which has supported some rebel groups in Syria’s conflict, of using “fabrications and lies” as an excuse to hit its territory.

After the Douma attack, the insurgent group dug-in there, Jaish al-Islam, finally agreed to withdraw. That sealed a huge victory for Assad, crushing a long rebellion in the Eastern Ghouta region near the capital Damascus.

In London, British Prime Minister Theresa May said all the indications pointed to Syrian government responsibility for the attack and that such “a shocking and barbaric act” could not go unchallenged.

The BBC reported that May was ready to give the go-ahead for Britain to take part in military action.

She would not seek approval from Parliament, the BBC said, despite calls from the opposition Labour Party for Parliament to be given a say.

She also ordered British submarines to move within missile range of Syria in readiness for strikes against the Syrian military that could begin as early as Thursday night, the Daily Telegraph newspaper reported.

Oil prices jumped to their highest level in more than three years Wednesday after Trump’s warning and U.S. stock index futures fell sharply due to alarm about a possible Russian-U.S. conflict over Syria.

The WHO said 43 people died in Saturday’s attack on Douma from “symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals” and more than 500 had been treated.

The WHO cautioned that it has no formal role in forensic inquiries into the use of chemical weapons.

International inspectors are seeking clearance from Damascus to visit Douma under safe conditions to determine whether globally banned munitions were used, though they will not assign blame.

Moscow and Washington blocked attempts by each other at the United Nations Security Council Tuesday to set up international investigations into chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

Moscow’s threat to down U.S. missiles came from its Ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Zasypkin, who said it was based on previous statements by President Vladimir Putin and the Russian armed forces chief of staff.

The Russian military said on March 13 that it would respond to any U.S. strike on Syria by targeting any missiles and launchers involved.

Zasypkin also said a clash between Russia and the United States over Syria “should be ruled out and therefore we are ready to hold negotiations.”

Putin spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and urged him to do nothing to destabilize Syria.

With tensions growing, however, European air traffic control agency Eurocontrol warned airlines to exercise caution in the eastern Mediterranean due to the possible launch of airstrikes into Syria over the next 72 hours.

Both Russia and Iran, Assad’s other main allies, have warned his enemies against military action in recent days, underlining their commitment to the Syrian government they have armed and supported through years of conflict.

Ali Akbar Velayati, the top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said during a visit to Damascus Tuesday that an Israeli attack on an air base in Syria Monday would “not remain without response.”

Israel held top-level security consultations Wednesday on the possibility it could be targeted by Syria or Iran if the United States strikes Syrian government forces.

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