The United States and Russia escalated a war of words over Syria on Wednesday, with President Trump warning that U.S. airstrikes “will be coming” despite Russia’s pledge to shoot down American missiles aimed at its ally.
The exchange raised the possibility of open military conflict between the old Cold War adversaries and marked a turnabout for a U.S. president who had ridiculed his predecessor for allegedly telegraphing military strategy.
“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!’ ” Trump wrote on Twitter, referring to missile strikes that have appeared likely since the deaths of more than 40 Syrian civilians, including children, over the weekend.
Trump’s tweet was the first explicit U.S. statement that a military response is in the offing, and it apparently took U.S. officials by surprise. The White House later said that a final decision had not yet been made and that all options remained open.
By addressing his warning to Russia, Trump effectively acknowledged that Syria could become a proxy battleground. Russia is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s strongest military defender. The United States conducts counterterrorism operations in Syria and backs some anti-Assad rebels.
“You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!” Trump wrote, in one of his most direct criticisms of Russia.
Several hours later at the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin told a gathering of new foreign ambassadors that “the state of things in the world cannot but provoke concern.”
“The situation in the world is increasingly chaotic,” Putin said. “Nevertheless, we hope that common sense will prevail in the end and that international relations will become more constructive — that the whole global system will become more stable and predictable.”
U.S. officials stressed that planning for airstrikes has been careful and orderly, and has involved diplomatic and intelligence agencies as well as the Pentagon, but said Trump’s direct threat Wednesday was unexpected.
Trump’s description of “smart” weaponry appeared to flow at least partly from briefings Monday and Tuesday that included options involving guided missiles, a senior U.S. official said. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the U.S. plan is not final.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump’s words were not an announcement of any specific action.
“We’re maintaining that we have a number of options, and all of those options are still on the table,” Sanders said.
As for Trump’s tweet, Sanders told reporters, “There’s a lot there that you can read from it, but at the same time, the president has a number of options on the table at this moment.”
Asked whether emoting on Twitter as he did Wednesday complicated the war strategy or posed a national security risk, Sanders said, “Not at all.”
Earlier this week, Trump said his administration was working on a response to the suspected chemical attack, including military options. On Monday, he said a decision would come in 24 to 48 hours, a time frame that has now elapsed and been complicated by the advent of an international inspection of the attack area.
Trump’s tweets came after Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon was quoted by news outlets Tuesday as saying that Russia would confront a U.S. strike on Syria by shooting down missiles and striking their launchpads or points of origin.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia did not plan to respond in kind to Trump’s tweeted taunt.
“We do not participate in Twitter diplomacy,” Peskov said, according to Russian news reports. “We are supporters of serious approaches. We continue to believe that it is important not to take steps that could harm an already fragile situation.”
The United States has been building a circumstantial case, based largely on videos and photographs, that a chemical attack by Syrian forces took place in the rebel-held town of Douma near Damascus.
Such a finding of fault would be the justification for a U.S. or allied military response that Syria and Russia would surely call a violation of international law. The finding would also help British and French leaders justify participating militarily with an American president who is unpopular among their citizens.
Syria and Russia have insisted that no chemical attack occurred and that only the opposition groups they call “terrorists” possess chemical weapons.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was at the White House on Wednesday afternoon for meetings expected to focus on Syria. Beforehand, he was asked whether he has seen sufficient evidence to blame the Assad government for the attack.
“We’re still assessing the intelligence, ourselves and our allies,” Mattis replied. “We stand ready to provide military options if they are appropriate, as the president determined.”
Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, has said the military would hit back if U.S. airstrikes endangered Russian servicemen in Syria.
“Regarding the question of what will happen in the event of this or that strike, one still wants to hope that all sides will avoid steps that (a) are not provoked by anything in reality and (b) could significantly destabilize the already fragile situation in the region,” Peskov said Wednesday.
The missiles most likely to be used in a U.S. attack would probably be launched from U.S. warships, opening the possibility that the Russian diplomat in Lebanon was threatening open warfare.
Two Navy destroyers were used to launch more than 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base in April 2017 in response to a nerve-agent attack that Trump blamed on Assad. The destroyers were underway in the Mediterranean Sea when the missiles were launched from hundreds of miles away. That position was beyond the range of Syrian defenses, but within range of potential Russian defenses.
The 2017 U.S. assault is probably the best guide for what Trump may do now, but he could choose other options. The strike a year ago made good on Trump’s vow not to let the use of chemical weapons go unpunished, but it failed to deter Assad from using them again.
The National Security Council, chaired by Vice President Pence, met Wednesday afternoon at the White House to finalize options that could be presented to the president, Sanders said.
In a later tweet Wednesday morning, Trump asserted that “our relationship with Russia is worse now than it has ever been, and that includes the Cold War.”
He later wrote that “much of the bad blood” with Russia was the result of an ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. He called the investigation “Fake & Corrupt.”
During his 2016 campaign, Trump regularly attacked President Barack Obama for previewing U.S. military strategy, revelations that he argued gave the enemy an advantage.
As president, Trump has boasted that he does not disclose his plans ahead of time. In April 2017, as he contemplated a strike in Syria, Trump said, “One of the things I think you’ve noticed about me is: Militarily, I don’t like to say where I’m going and what I’m doing.”
In 2013, he advised against any military intervention in Syria, suggesting it was a waste of U.S. energy and money. He also blasted Obama for signaling that a strike was imminent.
“We have given Syria so much time and information-there has never been such an instance in wartime history. Syria is now fully prepared!” Trump wrote on Twitter on Sept. 1, 2013.
Troianovski reported from Moscow. Philip Rucker in Washington and Louisa Loveluck in Istanbul contributed to this report.