US-Russian tensions escalate over Syrian chemical attack

Trump breaks with national security protocols to warn of imminent attack on Syria

Tensions between Washington and Moscow reached fever pitch on Wednesday as Donald Trump warned that the US was about to launch a missile strike on Syria and taunted Russia for supporting the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

The US has pledged to punish President Assad harshly for a suspected poison gas attack on the town of Douma, in the eastern Ghouta region near the Syrian capital on Saturday. Russia has dismissed accusations that Mr Assad was responsible as a “provocation,” and demanded an impartial investigation of the attack.

President Trump broke with US national security procedures to warn that an attack on Syria was imminent on Wednesday after the Russian ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Zasypkin said that his country would shoot down US weapons targeting Syria and destroy the site where the missiles were launched.

“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!” , Mr Trump tweeted. “You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”

Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s press spokesman, responded to Mr Trump’s outburst with a mild snub. “We don’t participate in Twitter diplomacy. We stand for serious approaches,” he said. “As before, we consider it important not to take steps that could destabilise an already fragile situation.”

Escalating tensions over the chemicals attack threaten to bring the US and Russia into direct conflict in Syria where they have backed opposing sides in the seven-year civil war while sharing a common goal to drive the Islamic State out of the region.

Major airlines began re-routing flights on Wednesday after air traffic controllers warned that rockets could be fired into Syria in the coming days. Eurocontrol, Europe’s main air traffic control agency, said aircraft flying in the eastern Mediterranean should exercise caution due to possible military action against Syria.

In a move to increase its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, the US was planning to dispatch its Harry S Truman Carrier Strike Group and its 6,500 sailors from Norfolk naval base in Virginia on Wednesday to sail to the region, a journey that would take up more than 10 days.

Russia has 15 vessels from its Black Sea Fleet deployed in the east Mediterranean at present including the Kalibr warship earlier used to launch cruise missiles against terrorist targets in Syria and some submarines.

The Syrian government has denied responsibility for the alleged chemical weapons attack on Saturday on the town of Douma where rebels have been holding out against a prolonged siege by pro-Assad forces.

However, the World Health Organisation said on Wednesday it had received reports that hundreds of people had visited Syrian health facilities with “signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals” at the weekend.

The US was still assessing intelligence about the chemical attack to ascertain whether Syrian forces were responsible or not, said US defence secretary Jim Mattis on Wednesday, shortly after Mr Trump tweeted that an attack on Syria was imminent. The US stood ready to provide military options if appropriate and as determined by Mr Trump, said Mr Mattis.

France and the UK have agreed a response to the attack on Douma is necessary to support the global ban on the use of chemical weapons. All indications pointed to Syrian government responsibility for the "shocking and barbaric act", said British prime minister Theresa May said. "We'll be working with our closest allies to consider how we can ensure that those responsible are held to account."

Iran pledged to support the Syrian government against any foreign aggression. “Iran backs Syria in its fight against America and the Zionist Regime (Israel), said Ali Akbar Velyati, top adviser to Iran’s supreme leader during a visit to Ghouta in Syria.