U.S. President Donald Trump has suggested a missile strike on Syria may be imminent, issuing a tweet warning Syrian government ally Russia that it should "get ready" because missiles "will be coming."
In the tweet on April 11, Trump sharply criticized Russia for backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, accusing Moscow of supporting an "animal " who kills his own people "and enjoys it."
Trump's tweet referred to recent warnings from Russian military officials and diplomats that any U.S. missiles fired at Syria would be shot down and the launch vehicles -- warships, aircraft, or otherwise -- would be targeted.
"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!"
That was clearly a reference to Assad, whom Trump has blamed for a suspected poison-gas attack that aid groups and emergency workers say killed dozens of civilians in the rebel-held town of Douma outside Damascus on April 7.
The World Health Organization said on April 11 that 43 people had died in the attack on Douma from "symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals," and more than 500 in all had been treated. In total, more than 70 people were killed during the attack, WHO said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on April 11 that the Pentagon was "ready" to provide options for military strikes in Syria, but noted Washington and its allies were still gathering information.
Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iran's supreme leader, said Tehran would "stand by Syria's government against any foreign aggression." Iran has been one of Syria's key allies.
Earlier, the Pentagon issued a statement saying that it "does not comment on potential future military actions" and referring questions about Trump's tweet to the White House.
"As the President noted on April 8, the chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime against innocent civilians...was horrifying, and demands an immediate response from the international community," Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon said in the statement.
In a response to Trump's tweet, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that the United States should target "terrorists" rather than Assad's forces and suggested the aim of a potential U.S. strike might be to obliterate evidence related to the suspected chemical attack -- which Russia has denied was carried out by the government.
"Smart missiles should fly at terrorists and not at the legitimate government, which has been fighting international terrorism on its territory for several years," Zakharova wrote on Facebook.
Russia has repeatedly claimed that the main U.S. goal in Syria is to oust Assad, not to defeat the extremist group Islamic State, but Washington denies that accusation.
Moscow announced on April 11 that the former rebel-held district of Eastern Ghouta -- including Douma, the target of the alleged chemical attack -- had been "totally stabilized" and would soon be patrolled by Russian military police.
'Fighting Like Street Bullies'
State-run Syrian news agency SANA, meanwhile, cited a Syrian Foreign Ministry source as saying that Assad's government was "not surprised by such a reckless escalation from a regime like the United States, which has fostered and continues to foster terrorism in Syria."
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that the United States and Russia "are fighting like street bullies" and urged them to seek to "heal the wounds of the region" instead.
Trump's tweet on Syria, issued before 7 a.m. Washington time, followed a fresh call from the Kremlin for the United States to refrain from striking Assad's government or its forces.
In a second tweet about 40 minutes later, Trump said that the U.S. relationship with Russia "is worse now than it has ever been, and that includes the Cold War."
"There is no reason for this," he added. "Russia needs us to help with their economy, something that would be very easy to do, and we need all nations to work together. Stop the arms race?"
Already strained from the start of President Vladimir Putin's current term, in 2012, ties between Russia and the United States have been further damaged by discord over issues including Russia's seizure of Crimea and backing for separatists in a war in eastern Ukraine, its support for Assad in the seven-year war in Syria, and its alleged meddling in the U.S. election that put Trump in office in 2016.
Trump has repeatedly indicated he wants better relations with the Kremlin -- and he faced criticism at home for congratulating Putin on his election to a new six-year term in a March vote that observers said gave Russians no real choice -- but has criticized Russia and Putin himself over Moscow's support for Assad.
Responding with arch enthusiasm to Trump's proposal to stop the "arms race," Zakharova wrote on Facebook: "Great idea!" She suggested the United States begin by eliminating its chemical weapons -- a reference to the fact that Russia has destroyed its declared chemical weapons arsenal under international commitments while the United States has not yet finished that process.
Such statements are likely to ring hollow in the United States, which has seconded Britain's accusation that Russia was behind the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in March with a potent nerve agent developed in the Soviet Union. Russia denies it, and the dispute has deepened tension between Russia and the West.
Russia has waned that a U.S. strike on Syria could have "grave consequences," and Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said a few hours before Trump's tweets that such an attack could "substantially destabilize" the "already fragile" situation in the Middle East.
The United States and some of its allies are considering whether to hit Syria over the Douma attack.
"As for the question of what will happen if there is some kind of strike...we would like to hope that all sides will avoid any steps that a) are not provoked by anything and b) could substantially destabilize the already fragile situation in the region,” Peskov said in a regular conference call with reporters.
He declined to comment directly on remarks by Russia's ambassador to Lebanon, who on April 10 repeated a warning from the military that any U.S. missiles fired at Syria would be shot down and that the launch vehicles would be targeted.
Peskov also reiterated Russian denials that Assad's forces carried out a poison-gas attack on Douma, saying that "Russia categorically disagrees with this [claim]" and wants a "dispassionate investigation" into the incident, which killed at least 40 people including children.
Trump, who has vowed to make the perpetrators of the suspected Douma attack pay a "big price," on April 10 canceled a planned trip to South America so he could focus on the Syria situation. The Syrian Army put its forces on alert for a three-day period, while a U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, has been sighted in the Mediterranean within striking distance of Syria.
Reuters and TASS reported late on April 10 that the pan-European air traffic control agency is warning airlines to exercise caution in the eastern Mediterranean "due to the possible launch of air strikes into Syria with air-to-ground and/or cruise missiles within the next 72 hours."
On April 10, Russia's UN ambassador pleaded with the United States not to stage a military strike against Syria after competing U.S. and Russian calls for investigations into the suspected attack in Douma failed to win approval in the UN Security Council.
'Protecting A Monster'
Russia used its veto power in the council to block a U.S.-drafted resolution that would have established an independent investigative body to determine who is behind alleged chemical attacks in Syria, which the council had approved by 12 to 2. China, usually Russia's ally, abstained in the vote.
"History will record that, on this day, Russia chose protecting a monster over the lives of the Syrian people," U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said, referring to Assad.
Russia's veto of the U.S. proposal was the 12th time that Russia has used its veto power to block action targeting Syria.
The U.S. proposal would have revived the work of a previous UN panel, known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism, that shut down in November after Russian vetoed a resolution to renew its mandate.
That panel concluded that the Syrian Air Force dropped the deadly nerve agent sarin on the village of Khan Sheikhun in April 2017, killing nearly 100 people.
The Khan Sheikhun attack prompted Trump to order U.S. missile strikes on the Syrian airfield from which U.S. officials said the government's planes launched the attack.
Syria has denied using chemical weapons anywhere in the country, despite the now-defunct UN panel's findings that Damascus was behind several documented chemical attacks there since 2014.
The international chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said on April 10 that it was sending a team of experts to the site of the Douma attack to gather evidence.
Trump has consulted with the leaders of France and Britain on a possible response to the suspected attack.
The White House said that Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May on April 10 "agreed not to allow the use of chemical weapons to continue" in a telephone call.
French President Emmanuel Macron said that any strikes by Western powers would not target the Syrian government's allies, which include Iran and Russia, but rather would be aimed at the Syrian government's chemical facilities.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said the Syrian Army has put all of its military facilities, including airports and bases, on alert for the next three days.