The Ummayad mosque complex in Damascus, the capital of Syria. (Photographer: Michael Luongo/Bloomberg)  

Trump Keeps His Syria Attack Options Open as Russia Urges Calm

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump said an attack on Syria could come “very soon, or not so soon at all,” as Russian leaders urged calm and reined in their own war rhetoric.

The U.S. president said Thursday on Twitter that he “never said when an attack on Syria would take place.” The comment came roughly 24 hours after he warned Russia to “get ready” for a missile attack on its ally to punish a presumed chemical attack near Damascus.

In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin appealed for common sense in a world growing “more chaotic.” Markets stabilized as investors speculated that Middle East tensions won’t turn into an uncontrolled confrontation between the two Cold War antagonists. U.S. stocks rose and Treasuries retreated as investors speculated that tensions in the Middle East won’t escalate into a destabilizing conflict.

Putin’s spokesman said that the Russian and U.S. militaries are maintaining contact via a telephone hotline. Russia is counting on cooler heads to prevail, said Frants Klintsevich, a senator who’s a member of the upper house’s defense and security committee.

“If these strikes start, it could end very tragically and it’s impossible to predict the outcome -- that’s the nature of military actions,” Klintsevich said in a phone interview. Among the U.S. military top brass “there are no madmen -- these are professionals who aren’t populists and know what this could lead to.”

Mattis’s Caution

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis also injected an element of caution, telling the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that his greatest fear of a potential strike on Syria is that the conflict would “escalate out of control, if you get my drift.”

He said that the U.S. role in Syria is to defeat Islamic State, not “to engage in the civil war itself.” But referring to the use of chemical weapons, Mattis said that “some things are simply inexcusable, beyond the pale” and require a response.

The threat of military response still hung in air, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying that there’s proof that Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons. The allies are working to decide what response would be “useful and efficient,” Macron said in a television interview.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May called an emergency Cabinet meeting for Thursday to discuss the British response to the apparent use of chemical weapons in Douma, a town controlled by Syrian rebels. May said she had little doubt -- despite Syrian and Russian protests to the contrary -- that Assad’s government was to blame for what happened in Douma.

“We will be working with our closest allies on how we can ensure that those who are responsible are held to account,” she told reporters on Wednesday. “The continued use of chemical weapons cannot go unchallenged.”

German Response

While German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the use of chemical weapons and cited “very strong evidence” that the Syrian regime has again deployed them, the country ruled out participating in any military action. At the same time, she made clear that Germany wouldn’t stand in the way of a response by its allies.

“It’s important to show unity, even if Germany will not take part militarily,” she told reporters in Berlin after meeting with Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen and speaking earlier with Macron. “Despite that, a violation of the chemical weapons convention is a grave occurrence, for which a reaction will be appropriate.”

Assad meanwhile made his first comments since images of civilian victims emerged last weekend, causing indignation around the world. The Syrian leader said after meeting a senior Iranian official that following every regime victory on the ground “the voices of some Western countries rise high in an attempt to change the course of events,” state-run media reported.

“These voices and possible moves will only contribute to further destabilization of the region which will in turn threaten international peace and security,” Assad was cited as saying.

Trump Warning

Mattis and other members of Trump’s national security team met Wednesday, after the president warned Russia on Twitter to expect a missile barrage toward its ally, Syria, saying “You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”

The U.S. administration hasn’t decided how to retaliate against Assad, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Wednesday, adding that the president has been in talks with a number of key allies in recent days.

“We’re maintaining that we have a number of options and all of those options are still on the table,” Sanders said when asked about the possibility of military action. “Final decisions haven’t been made yet on that front.”

Chemical Weapons

This is the second time in a year that Washington is gearing up to respond militarily in Syria. This time, Trump is under pressure to hit harder and take bigger risks than the attack in April 2017, which was limited to a single Syrian base and left little lasting damage.

In 2013, Russia headed off a threatened attack by the U.S. and France by engineering the transport of chemical weapons out of Syria. Western leaders such as Macron have said the continued use of chlorine and other gas show Syria didn’t totally live up to the agreement.

Read more: Can the world stop chemical weapons?

“There must be a consistent Syria policy, that is the key thing,” Norbert Roettgen, a Merkel party ally and chairman of the foreign policy committee in Germany’s parliament, said on Deutschlandfunk radio on Thursday. “There is no real U.S. policy on Syria. Assad and Russia have been given a free hand militarily.”

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