Trump and Putin prepare for face-off in Syria

Russians awoke on Wednesday to doomsday headlines claiming that Trump was teasing a third world war.

Donald Trump (L) and Vladimir Putin (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Donald Trump (L) and Vladimir Putin (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
With Israel and other countries in the region looking on with concern, US President Donald Trump taunted Russia Wednesday with a warning that “nice and new and ‘smart’” American missiles “will be coming” to Syria. Trump tweeted that the US will take military action against embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad over his use of chemical weapons on civilians, despite a warning from Moscow that it will repel and retaliate against such a strike.
Writing on Twitter, Trump acknowledged Russia’s threat issued through its envoy to Lebanon that Moscow would intercept any missiles the US fired at Assad’s forces – and target their launching pads. “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria,” Trump said.
“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!” he tweeted, referring to Assad, who has been accused of repeatedly using chemical weapons against civilian populations throughout the civil war that began more than seven years ago.
A spokesman for the Kremlin dismissed Trump’s message as a blunt instrument: “We don’t take part in Twitter diplomacy– we are supporters of serious approaches,” Dmitry Peskov told members of the press.
“As before, we would like to hope that all sides will avoid any steps that a) are not provoked by anything and b) could significantly destabilize an already fragile situation in the region,” said Peskov.
But in practice, Moscow appeared to be taking Trump at his word, by taking in some of Assad’s most valuable military assets at its air base in Latakia for their protection, and by sending into the Mediterranean all 11 Russian warships from its naval base at Tartus.
On the eve of the possible clash between the US and Russia in Syria, the heads of Israel’s security forces – including IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot – plan to be in Poland participating in the March of the Living, the annual Holocaust commemoration event at Auschwitz.
He will be joined by Police Commissioner Insp.-Gen. Roni Alsheich, Mossad Director Yossi Cohen and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Nadav Argaman.
Senior officials in the defense establishment warned Iran that Assad would pay the price if Tehran acted against Israel from Syrian territory.
The warning came after the top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called a strike on Syria’s T4 Air Base “Israel’s crime” and said it would “not remain without response.”
“Assad’s regime and Assad himself will disappear from the map and the world if the Iranians try to harm Israel or its interests from Syrian territory,” a senior Israeli officials said.
“Our recommendation to Iran is that it does not try to act, because Israel is determined to pursue this issue to the very end,” the officials said.
Pan-European air traffic control agency Eurocontrol on Tuesday warned airlines to exercise caution in the eastern Mediterranean due to the possible launch of air strikes into Syria in the next 72 hours.
Eurocontrol said that air-to-ground and/or cruise missiles could be used within that period and there was a possibility of intermittent disruption of radio navigation equipment.
Israel Airport Authority spokesman Ofer Lefler said Israel’s commercial airspace would remain open for civilian travel.
But already on Wednesday passengers on a flight between Tel Aviv and Shanghai received a message from the airline that their flight had been canceled due to security concerns.
RUSSIANS AWOKE on Wednesday to doomsday headlines claiming that Trump was teasing a third world war, mocking his “machismo,” and warning that US strikes “risk spilling over into open conflict between nuclear powers.”
The US has recruited support from Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and Qatar for military action, but with the exception of Paris, it is unclear what allies will join the US in an operation designed to dissuade the Assad regime from carrying out chemical attacks. It is also unclear what form the operation will take, or how long it will last.
The Pentagon moved US warships to the Syrian coast armed with cruise missiles in preparation for an assault, while Paris put its Rafale fighter jets on alert at their Saint-Dizier Air Base in northeastern France.
Trump’s national security staff is encouraging him to strike harder than he did one year ago, when he ordered the Pentagon to unleash a fusillade of 59 Tomahawk missiles on Al Shayrat airfield, an Assad regime military base that had launched a chemical weapons attack on nearby Khan Sheikhoun.
This time, the US, France and Britain believe Assad’s forces unleashed chemical weapons on rebel-held Douma, affecting more than 500 and killing dozens, with Russian and Iranian involvement or consent.
Russia and Iran deny the claims.
Trump’s secretary of defense, James Mattis, said on Wednesday that the US was still assessing what exactly happened in Douma. But the Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron have left no doubt over who they believe is culpable, and over their plans to respond with force.
The World Health Organization identified at least 500 people who reported symptoms of chemical arms exposure in Douma over the weekend, but independent verification of the event has proven difficult because the town is encircled by Assad forces.
Furthermore, Russia has vetoed efforts at the UN to establish an independent investigation of the incident – and on Wednesday, announced that it would be sending its own forces into Douma.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told Channel 2 the Americans had no option but to respond with an air strike would be more severe that then one the US carried out against Syria last year.
Kuperwasser predicted such a military strike would likely be done together with the United Kingdom and France.
Iran is definitely planning to attack Israel, Kuperwasser said, adding that this was true even before Israel’s reported strike on the T4 Air Force Base in Syria. Tehran is strengthening its military stronghold in Syria specifically for this purpose, Kuperwasser said.
Ben Caspit and Reuters contributed to this report.