Threat of US-Russia clash hangs over Syria

Children on a bus from the town of Douma. Chemical weapons experts are heading to Syria to investigate an alleged gas attack by government forces on Douma.
Children on a bus from the town of Douma. Chemical weapons experts are heading to Syria to investigate an alleged gas attack by government forces on Douma. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Russia's UN envoy says he cannot exclude war but averting it is crucial

BEIRUT • The prospect of Western military action in Syria that could lead to confrontation with Russia hung over the Middle East yesterday but there was no clear sign that a United States-led attack was imminent.

International chemical weapons experts were travelling to Syria to investigate an alleged gas attack by government forces on the town of Douma which killed dozens of people. Two days ago, US President Donald Trump warned that missiles "will be coming" in response to that attack.

The allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were eager yesterday to lay blame for the crisis not with him but with Mr Trump.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said international relations should not depend on one person's morning mood, in apparent reference to Mr Trump's tweets.

"We cannot depend on what someone on the other side of the ocean takes into his head in the morning. We cannot take such risks," said Mr Dvorkovich at a forum.

Russia has warned the West against attacking Mr Assad, who is also supported by Iran, and said there is no evidence of a chemical attack in Douma, a town near Damascus which had been held by rebels until this month.

Mr Vassily Nebenzia, Moscow's ambassador to the United Nations, said he "cannot exclude" war between the US and Russia.

"The immediate priority is to avert the danger of war," he told reporters. "We hope there will be no point of no return."

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was in contact with Washington but the atmosphere was alarming.

"God forbid anything adventurous will be done in Syria following the Libyan and Iraqi experience," he told a news conference yesterday.

Sheikh Naim Qassem, deputy leader of the Iranian-backed Hizbollah, told Lebanese daily Al-Joumhouria: "The conditions do not point to a total war happening ... unless Mr Trump and (Israeli leader) Benjamin Netanyahu completely lose their minds."

US allies have offered strong words of support for Washington, but no clear military plans have yet emerged.

British Prime Minister Theresa May won backing from her senior ministers on Thursday to take unspecified action with the US and France to deter further use of chemical weapons by Syria.

Some national leaders appeared anxious to avert a showdown between the US and Russia.

French leader Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday that France had proof the Syrian government carried out the April 7 attack and would decide whether to strike back when all necessary information had been gathered.

But he appeared conciliatory yesterday. His office said he spoke by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin expressing concern about the deterioration of the situation in Syria and calling for more dialogue with Moscow.

The Kremlin said Mr Putin yesterday warned his French counterpart during a telephone call against any "dangerous actions" in Syria.

"The most important thing is to refrain from ill-considered and dangerous actions that would constitute a gross violation of the UN Charter and would have unpredictable consequences," the office of the president said in a statement after the call.

Nato members Germany and the Netherlands have said they will not take part in any military action.

Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Syria's neighbour Turkey, said yesterday he had spoken by telephone with Mr Trump and Mr Putin, and told both that increasing tensions in the region was not right.

Mr Trump himself appeared on Thursday to cast doubt on at least the timing of any US-led military action, tweeting: "Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!"

He met his national security team on the situation in Syria later in the day and "no final decision has been made", the White House said in a statement.

"We are continuing to assess intelligence and are engaged in conversations with our partners and allies," it added.

The capture of Douma has clinched a major victory for Mr Assad, crushing what was once a centre of the insurgency near Damascus, and underlines his unassailable position in the war, which entered its eighth year last month.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2018, with the headline 'Threat of US-Russia clash hangs over Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe