April 11, 2018
Trump tells Russia to ‘get ready’ for US missiles fired at Syria
Kremlin spokesman: ‘We do not participate in Twitter diplomacy’
US-Russia tensions build as Moscow hits back at Trumps Twitter threat
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.”
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.
In anticipation of an attack, Syrian planes had been flown to three Russian air bases and senior Syrian government officials had been moved to safe houses in Damascus, according to sources in Turkey.
Trump’s 7am tweet 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 former diplomat and 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 Saturday’s poison gas attack in Douma, which Moscow claims was staged. On Wednesday the Russian army said it was going to send military police into the suburb 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 US killing Russians or Iranians is 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?”
The US defence secretary, James Mattis, also sought to dispel the impressionthat a decision to strike had already been taken. He told reporters at the Pentagon that the details of the Douma attack were still being analysed.
On Wednesday afternoon, Mattis attended a White House meeting with Trump, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Joseph Dunford, and the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats.
But there appeared little room for compromise between the two sides on the central issue: the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Russia and the western allies failed to agree on a concerted international response to the crisis at a session of the security council on Tuesday notable for the exchange of accusations and insults.
The OPCW is due to send a fact-finding mission to Douma as quickly as possible, but may take a week to come to a conclusion.
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.
Trump’s tone, in contrast to the more methodical evidence-led approach of the UK’s Conservative government, may also make it more difficult for May to win a Commons vote.
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