West weighs attack on Syria that could prompt confrontation with Russia

British ministers plan to gather Thursday to discuss whether to join the United States and France in a possible military attack on Syria that threatens to bring Western and Russian forces into direct confrontation.

Prime Minister Theresa May recalled the ministers from their Easter holiday for a special cabinet meeting on how to respond to what she has cast as a barbaric poison gas attack by Syrian government forces on civilians in the formerly rebel-held town of Douma, just east of the capital Damascus.

French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, said his government has proof that the Syrian government launched chlorine gas attacks. Speaking on TF1 television, Macron said, “We have proof that chemical weapons were used, at least chlorine” in recent days, by Syrian President al-Bashar Assad’s government.

He did not say whether France was planning military action.

There were also signs of a global effort to head off a dangerous conflict that could pit Russia against the West. The Kremlin said a crisis communications link with the United States, created to avoid an accidental clash over Syria, was in use.

“The situation in Syria is horrific. The use of chemical weapons is something the world has to prevent,” Brexit minister David Davis said on Thursday morning. “But also, it’s a very, very delicate circumstance, and we’ve got to make this judgment on a very careful, very deliberate, very well-thought-through basis.”

Missiles ‘will be coming’

Russia, the Syrian government’s most important ally in its seven-year-old war with rebels, said it had deployed military police in Douma on Thursday after the town was taken over by government forces.

“They are the guarantors of law and order in the town,” RIA news agency quoted Russia’s Defence Ministry as saying.

U.S. President Donald Trump warned Russia on Wednesday that missiles “will be coming” in response to the April 7 gas attack, alleged to have killed dozens of people, and lambasted Moscow for standing by Assad.

Attack kills dozens in Douma, but government denies involvement1:11

Two teams of investigators from the global chemical weapons watchdog are due to arrive in Syria on Thursday and Friday to look into the alleged gas attack in Douma, Syria’s Ambassador to the UN Bashar Ja’afari told reporters. The OPCW has confirmed that fact-finders are travelling to Syria and will start work on Saturday.

Syria’s military has repositioned some air assets to avoid fallout from possible missile strikes, U.S. officials told Reuters on Wednesday.

Syria’s attempt to shelter aircraft, perhaps by locating them alongside Russian military hardware that Washington might be reluctant to hit, could limit damage that the United States and its allies might be able to inflict on Assad’s military.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor, also said pro-Syrian government forces were emptying main airports and military airbases.

World stocks edged down as anxious investors stayed wary of risky assets.

Mattis cautious

U.S. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis, striking a cautious tone after Trump’s threat of missile strikes, said on Wednesday the United States was assessing intelligence about the suspected toxic gas attack.

Asked if he had seen enough evidence to blame the Syrian president, Mattis said: “We’re still working on this.”

Both Syria and Russia have said reports of the attack were fabricated by rebels and rescue workers in Douma, and have accused the United States of seeking to use it as a pretext to attack the government.

A medical worker gives a toddler oxygen through a respirator following an alleged poison gas attack in the opposition-held town of Douma, in eastern Ghouta, on Sunday.(Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

In Moscow, the head of a Russian parliamentary defence committee, Vladimir Shamanov, said Russia was in direct contact with the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff about the situation.

The Russian military said it had observed movements of U.S. navy forces in the Gulf. Any U.S. strike would probably involve the navy, given the risk to aircraft from Russian and Syrian air defences. A U.S. guided-missile destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, is in the Mediterranean.

Moscow’s ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, warned on Wednesday that any U.S. missiles fired at Syria would be shot down and the launch sites targeted.

The Syrian conflict has increasingly widened the rifts between Moscow, Washington and European powers, and inflamed the bitter rivalries that run across the Middle East.

Syria, Iran and Russia say Israel was behind an airstrike on a Syrian air base on Monday that killed seven Iranian military personnel, something Israel has neither confirmed nor denied.

Israel-Iran tensions

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone on Wednesday and urged him to do nothing to destabilize Syria.

Netanyahu’s office said: “The prime minister reiterated that Israel will not allow Iran to establish a military presence in Syria.”

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said he had spoken to Trump on Wednesday and would speak to Putin on Thursday night about the apparent chemical attack.

May has ordered British submarines to move within missile range of Syria in readiness for strikes against the Syrian military that could begin as early as Thursday night, London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper said on Wednesday.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has summoned her cabinet back from vacation to discuss possible military action against Syria.(Frank Augstein/Associated Press)

The BBC reported that May was ready to give the go-ahead for Britain to take part in military action. She would not seek approval from Parliament, the BBC said, despite calls from the opposition Labour Party for Parliament to be given a say.

Parliament voted down British military action against Assad’s government in 2013 in an embarrassment for May’s predecessor, David Cameron. That then deterred the U.S. administration of Barack Obama from similar action.

British Minister Davis said his decision then to vote against action was based on a lack of clear evidence and no clear plan.

“Those two things, I’m assured, we will get an answer to today,” he said of Thursday’s cabinet meeting.

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