- Trump tells Russia to ‘get ready’ for US missiles fired at Syria
- Kremlin spokesman: ‘We do not participate in Twitter diplomacy’
The US and Russia came significantly closer to a direct clash over Syria on Wednesday when Donald Trump fired off an incendiary tweet that told Moscow to “get ready” for incoming US missiles, which the Russian military has vowed to shoot down.
A standoff over a poison gas attack on a rebel-held suburb of Damascus on Saturday has since spiraled into the most dangerous confrontation between the two nuclear-armed powers since the height of the cold war, driven by Vladimir Putin’s uncompromising backing for the Assad regime in Damascus and the volatility of the US president.
“Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria,” the US president tweeted. “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”
The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, called for calm.
“We do not participate in Twitter diplomacy,” Peskov was quoted as saying by Interfax. “We support serious approaches. We continue to believe that it is important not to take steps that could harm an already fragile situation.”
Despite the president’s menacing tweet, both the White House spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, and the defence secretary, James Mattis, suggested a decision on military action was still pending.
“All options are on the table and a final decision hasn’t been made,” Sanders said.
Mattis said the US was “still assessing intelligence” on Saturday’s attack on Douma , before attending a White House meeting of military and intelligence chiefs chaired by Vice-President Mike Pence.
In anticipation of an attack, Syrian planes had been flown to three Russian airbases and senior Syrian government officials had been moved to safe houses in Damascus, according to sources in Turkey.
A US naval battlegroup – including the guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook, and mostly likely a cruise missile submarine, USS Georgia – was in place in the eastern Mediterranean on Wednesday night.
France has a missile ship, the Aquitaine, in the eastern Mediterranean and Rafale fighters armed with cruise missiles in Jordan and Abu Dhabi. President Emmanuel Macron has declared that proven Syrian regime responsibility for chemical weapons use would cross a red line for France.
In London, Theresa May summoned her cabinet for an emergency meeting on Thursday to discuss the next steps, after warning that the Douma attack, “could not go unchallenged”.
MPs are not due to return to Westminster from their Easter recess until next week; but the prime minister is under pressure to decide whether the UK will join coordinated military action.
Speaking on Wednesday, May pointed the finger at the Assad government, and promised to ensure that those responsible were “held to account”. “The use of chemical weapons cannot go unchallenged,” she said.
“We’re rapidly reaching an understanding of what happened on the ground. All the indications are that the Syrian regime was responsible.”
It is not entirely clear what sparked Trump’s 7am tweet, but it came after news reports quoted the Russian ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, warning that Russian forces in Syria would intercept any incoming US missiles, and return fire at their source, likely to mean US planes or ships.
Russian air defence did not try to shoot down US Tomahawk cruise missiles the last time Trump ordered punitive strikes following a chemical weapons attack attributed to the Assad regime.
But the Russian chief of general staff, Valery Gerasimov, warned last month that the next time could be different, and that Russia would use air defence and other weapons if its forces in Syria were threatened.
Zasypkin’s reported remarks appear more sweeping, suggesting any incoming attack would trigger retaliation – whether or not there were Russian casualties.
Vladimir Frolov, a foreign affairs analyst in Moscow, told the Guardian that he believed the ambassador’s remarks were mistranslated, and noted that the Russian envoy had referred directly to Moscow’s stated policy.
But with tensions rising, he said, he believed Putin may have to step in to restate Moscow’s policy.
“I think until now they thought it would be good to keep the US in doubt about the real Russian reaction, but Trump has raised the stakes today,” Frolov said.
The Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, claimed that a US missile salvo could be used to destroy evidence of the gas attack, which Moscow claims was staged. On Wednesday the Russian army said it was going to send military police into Douma to safeguard the site.
Their deployment appeared part of a plan proposed by Moscow to bring specialists from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to the site of the reported attack. Western officials have warned that any Russian effort to control the visit could turn the inspection into a new flashpoint, rather than a potentialway out of the looming crisis.
Syria’s other main backer, Iran – which has signficant ground forces in the country – could also retaliate if its troops are hit on a fraught battlefield crisscrossed by tense rivalries between outside powers.
“It is hard to think of a more risky situation,” said Joseph Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, an arms control advocacy group. “You have the US attacking from the air against ground forces intermingled with Iranians and Russians. The chances of the US killing Russians or Iranians are quite high. Their reaction is unknown but it is certainly not going to be understanding.”
Less than an hour after warning Russia to “get ready”, Trump appeared to strike a less aggressive tone in a second tweet.
“Our relationship with Russia is worse now than it has ever been, and that includes the Cold War. There is no reason for this,” he wrote. “Russia needs us to help with their economy, something that would be very easy to do, and we need all nations to work together. Stop the arms race?”
But there appeared little room for compromise between the two sides on the central issue: the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
The UN’s World Health Organisation, based in Geneva, said on Wednesday that it had received reports that 500 patients had been admitted to hospital with symptoms of a chemical attack.
But the Russian foreign ministry doubled down on its claim that no chemical attack occurred, saying at a briefing: “This is a total deception on a global scale.”
“Damascus has neither the motive to use chemical weapons nor the chemical weapons themselves,” Zakharova, the foreign ministry spokeswoman, said. “There is no proof of their use by Damascus.”
The latest bellicose tone from the White House, and pressure from the military not to give Russia time to prepare its air defences inside Syria, raises questions about whether the US will wait for a British parliamentary endorsement for action.
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