Moscow fears US-Russia clash as Trump promises decision on Syria strike ‘soon’
The Kremlin said a crisis communication link with the United States, created to avoid an accidental confrontation over Syria, was in use
Russia’s UN ambassador warned of a possible war with America on Thursday as US President Donald Trump held meetings with his staff to discuss action on Syria, which he has threatened to hit with missile strikes after a suspected poison gas attack on civilians in the city of Douma.
As Trump said a decision would come “soon”, UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia urged the US and its allies to refrain from military action against Syria, saying the “immediate priority is to avert the danger of war”.
Asked if he was referring to a war between the United States and Russia, he told reporters: “We cannot exclude any possibilities, unfortunately, because we saw messages that are coming from Washington. They were very bellicose.”
“They know we are there, I wish there was dialect [sic] though the proper channels on this to avert any dangerous developments,” Nebenzia added. “The danger of escalation is higher than simply Syria because our military are there … So the situation is very dangerous.”
Fears of confrontation between Russia, Syria’s major ally, and the West have been running high since Trump said on Wednesday that missiles “will be coming” in response to the attack in the Syrian town of Douma on April 7, and lambasted Moscow for standing by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!” Trump wrote in a tweet on Thursday. Later, he said: “We’re having a number of meetings today, we’ll see what happens. Now we have to make some … decisions, so they’ll be made fairly soon.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, said France had proof the Syrian government carried out the attack near Damascus, 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 al-Assad,” Macron said, without offering details of the evidence.
“We will need to take decisions in due course, when we judge it most useful and effective,” Macron told broadcaster TF1.
And in the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May held a special cabinet meeting to weigh whether Britain should join in any possible military action. She has cast the attack in Douma, which was held at the time by rebels, as barbaric.
Syria and its backers, Russia and Iran, have said reports of the attack were fabricated by rebels and rescuers in Douma and
have accused the United States of seeking to use it as a pretext to attack the Syrian government.
Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all! In any event, the United States, under my Administration, has done a great job of ridding the region of ISIS. Where is our “Thank you America?”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 12, 2018
In Washington, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis told Congress he believed there was a chemical attack in Syria, but added a short while later that the United States had not made any decision to launch military action in Syria.
NBC News reported that US officials obtained blood and urine samples from victims of the Douma attack that tested positive for chemicals, mainly for chlorine and some for a nerve agent. The officials said they were “confident” in the intelligence though not 100 per cent sure, it said.
Those reports will be examined more fully by a team of experts from the global chemical weapons watchdog, the Netherlands-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OCPW), which is travelling to Syria and will start investigations on Saturday.
It was not clear whether Trump and US allies would wait for the results of the investigation before deciding on a possible strike.
Russia, Assad’s most important ally in his seven-year-old war with rebels, said it deployed military police in Douma on Thursday after the town was taken over by government forces.
“They are the guarantors of law and order in the town,” RIA news agency quoted Russia’s defence ministry as saying.
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 United States, created to avoid an accidental clash over Syria, was in use.
There was no direct word from Russian President Vladimir Putin on the crisis, though he discussed the situation with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan by phone on Thursday, Interfax news agency said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow sought no escalation of the situation, but could not support “dishonest accusations” and had found no evidence of a chemical weapons attack in Douma.
Statements from Washington have been militaristic, and threats by the United States and France were a violation of the UN charter, ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
Syria’s military has repositioned some air assets to avoid missile strikes, US officials said. Locating them alongside Russian military hardware might make Washington reluctant to hit them.
Russian ships had left the Tartus naval base in Syria, a Russian lawmaker told Interfax. Vladimir Shamanov, chairman of the defence committee of the lower house, said the vessels had departed the base for their own safety, which was “normal practice” when there were threats of attack.
The Russian military said it observed movements of US naval forces in the Gulf. Any US strike would probably involve the Navy, given the risk to aircraft from Russian and Syrian air defences. A guided-missile destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, is in the Mediterranean.
The Syrian conflict has widened the rifts between Moscow, Washington and European powers and inflamed the bitter rivalries that run across the Middle East.
Nervous world stock markets showed signs of recovery after Trump signalled that military strikes might not be imminent.