U.S.-led military strikes in retaliation for the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons against a Damascus suburb last weekend remained a distinct possibility, but there were indications that efforts to head off a confrontation between global powers were gathering momentum.
In Moscow, the Kremlin sought to tamp down fears of a conflict with the United States by signaling for the first time in days that it might not carry out threats to retaliate against a U.S. strike.
“We still believe that it is very necessary to avoid any steps which can trigger an escalation in tensions in Syria,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “We believe that this could have a very destructive impact on the entire Syrian settlement.”
Analysts in Russia said the focus now is on ways to ensure that any strikes are limited so that they don’t kill Russians, thereby allowing Moscow to refrain from carrying out its threats to retaliate. Thousands of Russian troops and military advisers are stationed at military facilities across Syria, where they have been supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s seven-year-old efforts to crush the rebellion against his rule.
“I rule out a scenario in which the United States will intentionally strike a facility in Syria where Russian servicemen are located,” Military Sciences Academy Vice President Sergei Modestov said in Thursday’s edition of the government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta.
The Kommersant newspaper quoted anonymous Defense Ministry sources as saying that the general staff of Russia’s military was in touch with the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and expected to receive coordinates on airstrike targets from the Pentagon to avoid Russian casualties.
“Right now, the talk is about the necessity of de-escalation,” said Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst in Moscow. “We’ve practically come to the brink of war.”
French President Emmanuel Macron gave the strongest indication yet that France is ready to join the United States in striking Syria, saying that France has “proof” that some form of chemical attack occurred.
But in a television interview, he also suggested that strikes were not imminent. He said a decision would be made “in due course, when we judge it most useful and effective.”
“France will not allow any escalation that could harm stability in the region,” he added.
In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May met with her top leadership team Thursday to discuss backing military action in Syria. A statement after the cabinet meeting was limited, saying that Britain believes the use of chemical weapons should not go “unchallenged.” The British government “agreed on the need to take action to alleviate humanitarian distress and to deter the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime,” the statement said, without committing to any form of military involvement.
A tweet from President Trump, which backtracked from his Wednesday warning that missiles soon would be heading toward Syria, further contributed to the sense that the threat of a conflagration was receding. “Never said when an attack on Syria would take place,” he tweeted. “Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”
Syrians, who had been bracing for U.S. strikes for three nights in a row, said the mood in the capital, Damascus, was palpably relaxing, with residents increasingly shrugging off the threat.
In the first days of the crisis, text messages circulated urging residents to stock up on supplies and stay indoors, said Maysa Sabouh, who lives in Damascus. Now, “life has gone back to normal,” she said. “I can’t say no one was worried, but last night, all the cafes were full of people watching soccer. People know that Trump is crazy, that he runs the politics of the world as if he is directing an action movie.”
Government supporters said they took Trump’s tweet to mean the United States was backing down, just as President Barack Obama did not carry through on his threat to strike Syria in 2013 in retaliation for a chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta, the same Damascus suburb that was the target of Saturday’s attack.
“This shows that the dog that barks doesn’t bite,” said Ammar Ismael, speaking from the coastal province of Latakia, a government stronghold. “America knows that Assad is winning.”
Assad remained defiant, telling reporters in Damascus that the U.S. allegations of a chemical weapons attack were “based on facts fabricated by their accomplices.” Assad has made public appearances throughout the week, dispelling rumors that he had gone into hiding, escaped to Iran or sought refuge on a Russian base.
He was speaking alongside Ali Akbar Velayati, the top adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Velayati is visiting Syria in a strong signal of Iranian support for Damascus. In a reminder that the war in Syria goes well beyond the dispute about chemical weapons, Velayati said he hoped Syria and Iran would “soon” conduct an operation to drive U.S. troops out of northeastern Syria, where they are supporting a mostly Kurdish militia.
There were other signs that diplomatic efforts to avert an escalation are kicking in. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan telephoned Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Syria, a day after speaking on the phone with Trump. Erdogan told a political rally of his supporters that he would discuss ways to end the “chemical massacres” in Syria.
A Russian lawmaker said Turkey is seeking to mediate between Russia and the United States, building on its relationships with the U.S. military in NATO and the Russian military in Syria to establish a channel of communications.
“A dialogue between the chiefs of staff of the U.S. and Russia has begun. The connection has been made possible through our counterparts in Turkey,” Vladimir Shamanov, head of the Russian parliament’s defense committee, said late Wednesday.
Thursday’s statements by Trump and Macron represent a growing recognition that strikes without a strategy will not work and that, if they are to be conducted, it should be in tandem with a broader effort to end the Syrian war, said Nicholas Heras of the Center for a New American Security.
“This entire crisis is about forcing Russia to put a leash on Assad,” he said. “What the United States and France are aiming to do is get Russia to the table and to force Russia to take ownership for Assad’s behavior.
“The United States has tried diplomacy for diplomacy’s sake, but now the mood is to use military force for diplomacy’s sake,” he added. “Russia can play ball, or it can watch as the U.S. and its allies drive down the field on Assad.”
Troianovski reported from Moscow. James McAuley in Paris, Karla Adam in London and Suzan Haidamous in Beirut contributed to this report.