Putin slams ‘act of aggression’ in Syria but avoids escalation

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the US actions in Syria made the humanitarian catastrophe worse and caused pain for civilians.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the US actions in Syria made the humanitarian catastrophe worse and caused pain for civilians.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MOSCOW (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday (April 14) denounced strikes on Syria by the US, France and Britain as an “act of aggression” but made no mention of possible retaliation for the highly anticipated attack on his Middle Eastern ally, easing for the moment fears of a wider conflict.

In a statement published on the Kremlin website, Putin said Russia has called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.

“Russia convenes an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss aggressive actions of the US and its allies,” Putin said. “The current escalation of the situation around Syria has a devastating impact on the whole system of international relations,” he added.

US, British and French forces pounded Syria with more than 100 missiles early on Saturday in response to a poison gas attack that killed dozens of people last week, in the biggest intervention by Western powers against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Putin said the US actions in Syria made the humanitarian catastrophe worse and caused pain for civilians.

“Russia in the most serious way condemns the attack on Syria where Russian military servicemen help the legitimate government to fight terrorism,” he said.

In a televised briefing on Saturday, Colonel-General Sergei Rudskoi said Moscow may consider supplying S-300 surface to-air missile systems to Syria and “other countries”. 

Russia had “refused” supplying those missiles to Syria a few years ago, he added, “taking into account the pressing request of some of our Western partners”.

Following the US-led strikes, however, “we consider it possible to return to examination of this issue not only in regard to Syria but to other countries as well,” Rudskoi said.

Syria’s air defence system, which mostly consists of systems made in the Soviet Union, has intercepted 71 of the missiles fired on Saturday by the US, British and French forces, he added.

“In the past year and a half Russia has fully restored Syria’s air defence system and continues to further upgrade it,”Rudskoi said. 

The dozens of missiles and bombs fired at a handful of sites early Saturday didn’t enter airspace guarded by advanced systems above Russian bases near the coast, the Defence Ministry in Moscow said. There were no casualties, either Syrian or Russian, or serious damage inflicted, the ministry said.

Putin’s top military commander last month warned that Russian forces would shoot down any missiles and their launchers that threaten its personnel, fueling fears a major US barrage could escalate.

But the strikes, though larger than those Trump ordered a year ago, were limited to a few targets linked to Syria’s chemical-weapons programme, according to US officials.

“We’re not talking about a direct military conflict between Russia and the US,” said Andrei Klimov, deputy chairman of the international affairs committee in the upper house of parliament in Mosow. “The Americans and their allies did everything to make sure they didn’t hit Russian units.”

The limited scope of the brief campaign showed that Moscow’s warnings had worked, according to Klimov.

“They’re cowardly political thugs,” Klimov said of the US administration. “They wanted to get some militaristic PR for their own political reasons but they’re scared of getting hit back.”

US officials said targets were chosen to minimise the risk of accidentally hitting Russian forces. The US didn’t give Russia early notice of the targets but used a hotline to ensure the airspace was clear.

France said Russia was warned in advance of the strikes to avoid direct confrontation. Russia has air and naval bases in Syria, but its forces are dwarfed by those of Iran, which is also fighting on behalf of Assad, and of the US and its allies.

 

Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the US, said in a Facebook post the attack “would have consequences,” but he didn’t elaborate. 

He also criticised the US for “insulting” Putin, an apparent reference to Trump calling out his counterpart for his support of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad." 

Russia will surely respond, but most likely through counter-sanctions designed to address the overall degradation of the US-Russian relationship, rather than militarily against US soldiers in Syria,” Eurasia Group said. Russian could also target US allies in the region with cyberattacks, the risk advisory firm said.

Elena Supponina, a Mideast specialist at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, which advises the Kremlin, said Moscow’s warnings about avoiding escalation had been heeded because “no red lines were crossed.”

“Ties remain tense, but there’s a faint hope that the window of opportunity for improvement hasn’t yet closed,” she said.

Syria has been attacked just as it had a chance for peace, Russia's Foreign Ministry said .

"First the 'Arab spring' tested the Syrian people, then Islamic State (in Iraq and Syria), now smart American rockets. The capital of a sovereign government, trying for years to survive under terrorist aggression, has been attacked," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook.

"You have to be quite abnormal to attack Syria's capital just at the moment when it had a chance for a peaceful future," she wrote.

Zakharova suggested that Western media bore some responsibility for the strikes, claiming the White House cited "multiple media sources" on the suspected chemical weapons attack in Douma.

"American and other Western media must understand their responsibility for what happened," Zakharova wrote.

Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the international affairs committee in the upper house of parliament, said the strikes appeared to have been aimed at preventing an investigation of the alleged chemical-weapons attack that Washington cited as the justification. Moscow has called that incident a set-up, a contention Western governments dismiss.

But Kosachyov said Russia’s response “should be not military but legal,” focused on the United Nations, RIA Novosti reported.