Tuesday 25 June, 2019

Trump blurs Syria attack timing amid Russia conflict fears

(Image: AP: Donald Trump, pictured on 10 April 2018)

(Image: AP: Donald Trump, pictured on 10 April 2018)

President Donald Trump said on Thursday that an attack on Syria could take place "very soon or not so soon at all", arguing he had never signalled the timing of retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack that he had suggested was imminent a day earlier.

The president made his latest statement in a tweet on Thursday morning. Trump on Wednesday had warned Russia to "get ready" for a missile attack on its ally, Syria. But on Thursday, Trump tweeted: "Never said when an attack on Syria would take place."

At stake in Syria is the potential for confrontation, if not outright conflict, between the US and Russia, former Cold War foes whose relations have deteriorated in recent years over Moscow's intervention in Ukraine, its interference in the 2016 US presidential election and, most recently, its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Russian lawmakers have warned the United States that Moscow would view an airstrike on Syria as a war crime and that it could trigger a direct US-Russian military clash. Russia's ambassador to Lebanon said any missiles fired at Syria would be shot down and the launching sites targeted - a stark warning of a potential major confrontation.

‘Assessing the intelligence’

Trump, who has often said a commander in chief should never telegraph his military intentions, apparently did so himself, tweeting that missiles "will be coming" in response to the suspected chemical attack on Saturday that killed at least 40 people near Damascus.

"Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria," Trump wrote. "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!"

Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, however, indicated that evidence of what happened was still being studied. Asked by a reporter whether he had seen enough evidence to blame the Syrian government, he said: "We're still assessing the intelligence, ourselves and our allies. We're still working on this."

(Image: AP: Photo made on Sunday 8 April from video released by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets shows medical workers treating toddlers after the alleged chemical attack in the opposition-held town of Douma in Syria)

Trump suggested on Monday he had little doubt that Syria was to blame, but neither he nor other administration officials have produced hard evidence. This is in contrast to an incident one year ago in which the US government had video and other evidence of certain aspects of an actual attack by Syrian aircraft, which involved the use of sarin gas. Trump responded then by launching dozens of Navy cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield.

France ‘has evidence’

Trump did not detail what a strike on Syria would look like, or whether these would be US missiles. US officials have been consulting with France, Britain and other allies on a possible joint military operation, but the timing remained in doubt on Wednesday. Trump cancelled a foreign trip in order to manage a crisis that is testing his vow to stand up to Assad.

Syria's Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that Trump's threats to attack are "reckless" and endanger international peace and security.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday said France has proof that the Syrian government launched chlorine gas attacks and that France would not tolerate "regimes that think everything is permitted". The Syrian government denies responsibility.

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