China warns against military action in Syria as threat of US strikes put everyone on high alert
Trump cancels his South America trip to focus on military response, while Iranian official says Israel will pay for an alleged attack on airbase
Beijing has called for calm in Syria where government forces and their allies are on alert amid fears of a US strike after an apparent chemical weapons attack, war monitors said.
Saturday’s suspected poison gas attack in the rebel-held town of Douma, just east of Damascus, and then Monday’s air strike by US ally Israel on a base where Iranians were stationed have escalated tensions in the already volatile Middle East.
Russia and the Syrian military blamed Monday’s predawn strike, which reportedly killed 14 people, on Israel. Adding to the tensions on Tuesday, a senior Iranian official visiting Damascus warned that Israel’s strike “will not remain unanswered”.
Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency said seven Iranians were killed in the attack. There has been no comment from Israel on the strike on the T4 airbase in Syria’s central Homs province.
President Donald Trump, meanwhile, cancelled his first official trip to Latin America this week to focus on responding to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, the White House announced.
Trump had been scheduled to travel to Lima, Peru, on Friday to attend the Summit of the Americas and then travel on to Bogota, Colombia.
The decision to cancel the tour came after Trump threatened a military strike against Syrian forces, vowing to respond “forcefully” to Saturday’s apparent chemical weapons attack on civilians in Douma. He also warned that Russia – or any other nation found to share responsibility – will “pay a price”.
Key American allies France and the UK backed the tough-talking US president's comments.
“I’ll be continuing to talk with our allies and partners as I have done, speaking to President Macron this morning, and I’ll be speaking to President Trump later today,” British Prime Minister Theresa May said.
“We believe that those responsible should be held to account.”
France’s government spokesman said Paris would respond if it was proved that forces backing the Syrian government carried out the deadly attack.
“The president has said repeated again and again that if the red line is crossed, and if it is established who is responsible, it will lead to a response,” Benjamin Griveaux told Europe 1 radio.
At least 60 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured at several sites in the alleged attack on Douma, according to a Syrian relief group.
The opposition blamed President Bashar al-Assad’s forces for the attack, accusations the government and its Russian backers strongly deny. Assad and Russia, his most powerful ally, said there was no evidence that a gas attack had taken place and the claim was bogus.
According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Syrian troops have been on a 72-hour alert and are fortifying positions across the country, from the southern province of Sweida all the way to Aleppo province in the north.
The Sound and Picture Organisation, an activist collective in eastern Syria, said Iranian fighters and members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group have evacuated their positions near Iraq’s border.
A Lebanese politician with close links to the Syrian government, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that precautionary measures were being taken throughout Syria and that a US strike was expected.
Amid the heightened tensions, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang called for calm, saying his country was “opposed to the wanton use of force or threat of force”.
Before a “comprehensive, impartial and objective investigation” had been conducted into the incident, no party should “prejudge the results and come to conclusions randomly”, he said.
“Military means will lead us nowhere.”
China has consistently said the crisis needs a “political solution” but has numerous times vetoed UN Security Council measures aimed at addressing the conflict – including an investigation of war crimes in the country.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Tuesday he is outraged by Syria’s apparent chemical weapons use against civilians. If confirmed, the use of such weapons would be a violation of international law, Guterres said in a statement.
Guterres also said he reaffirms his support of an investigation into the alleged attack by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
In Moscow, a senior Russian lawmaker said his country is willing to help arrange a visit this week for experts from the international chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Protection of Chemical Weapons or OPCW, to the site of the suspected poison gas attack.
Yevgeny Serberennikov, from the defence committee at the Federation Council, told the RIA Novosti news agency on Tuesday that Russia is anxious for the OPCW to “finally start carrying out the functions it was created for”.
Reporting by Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Reuters