Russia warns against Syria strikes as West hesitates

Rebels and their families in Syria's Eastern Ghouta have been leaving the enclave, as Western powers debate whether to launch strikes on the Syrian regime
AFP

Paris (France) (AFP) – Russia warned the West Friday against any “dangerous” moves on Syria as its rivals hesitated over possible strikes on the country which Moscow has warned could lead to “war”.

The UN Security Council was to meet again Friday, at Russia’s request, to try to defuse the standoff over accusations that the Syrian regime waged a chemical attack on civilians.

US President Donald Trump appeared to back away from earlier threats of imminent action and France’s Emmanuel Macron on Friday called for stepped-up talks with Moscow.

Russia repeated its warnings against an escalation.

“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,” Putin’s office said in a statement after he and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke by telephone.

– ‘Unpredictable consequences’ –

After a meeting with national security advisors Thursday, the White House said it had not yet decided how to respond to last week’s suspected chemical attack which the US, France and Britain blame on Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Macron told Putin he wanted to “intensify” talks in order to “bring peace and stability to Syria”, the French President’s office said in a statement.

A White House briefing on a call between Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May said that they “continued their discussion of the need for a joint response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons”.

A Downing Street spokesperson added: “They agreed it was vital that the use of chemical weapons did not go unchallenged, and on the need to deter the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.”

But US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis struck a cautious note, telling lawmakers that the need to “stop the murder of innocent people” had to be weighed up against the risk of things “escalating out of control”.

– French ‘proof’ –

During his meeting with Trump and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joe Dunford, Mattis pushed for more evidence of the Assad regime’s culpability for the attack, to bolster the case for air strikes, The New York Times reported.

Macron claimed in a TV interview Thursday that he had “proof” that Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons and vowed a response “in due course”.

But he also appeared anxious to avoid a wider conflict, saying France would “in no way allow an escalation”.

– Suspected chlorine attack –

Western officials believe chlorine was used in Saturday’s attack on Douma, the main city in the longtime rebel bastion of Eastern Ghouta, where the British government now estimates 75 people were killed.

What is less clear is whether sarin — the agent used in the chemical attack that prompted US missile strikes last year — or a similar agent was also used.

Russia, which has stonewalled diplomatic efforts at the UN Security Council, has vehemently denied a chemical attack took place and accused the West of seeking an excuse for military action.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned Western intervention in Syria would “lead to new waves of migrants to Europe”.

Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are expected to arrive in Syria over the weekend to investigate the reported attack, following an invitation from Damascus.

Diplomats have expressed concern that the experts could be used as hostages or human shields.

– ‘Danger of war’ –

Since Saturday, when images of ashen toddlers struggling for breath emerged after the alleged attack, there has been a sustained military buildup in the eastern Mediterranean.

A French frigate, UK Royal Navy submarines laden with cruise missiles and the USS Donald Cook, an American destroyer equipped with Tomahawk land attack missiles, have all moved into range of Syria’s sun-bleached coast.

Russia’s UN ambassador warned that US-led strikes could lead to a confrontation between the world’s two preeminent nuclear powers.

“The immediate priority is to avert the danger of war,” said Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia.

US officials have refused to rule out direct military engagement with Russia, with the White House saying “all options are on the table”.

– Rebels give up Ghouta –

On the ground in Syria, rebels and civilians were evacuating from Douma on Friday after anti-regime fighters in Eastern Ghouta surrendered their heavy weapons and their leader left the enclave.

That signalled the end of one of the bloodiest assaults of the seven-year war and a major win for the Assad regime.

At the United Nations meanwhile, diplomats were mulling a draft resolution put forward by Sweden that would dispatch a “high-level disarmament mission” to rid the country of chemical weapons “once and for all”.

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