Russian President Vladimir Putin warned on Sunday (15 April) that further Western attacks on Syria would bring chaos to world affairs, as Washington prepared to increase pressure on Russia with new economic sanctions.
Western air strikes aimed at destroying Syria’s chemical weapons facilities have exacerbated tensions between Moscow and the West, already at a new post-Cold War high after the expulsion of more than 130 Russian diplomats in response to the nerve agent attack on ex-spy Sergei Skripal.
On Saturday, the United States, France and Britain launched 105 missiles targeting what the Pentagon said were three chemical weapons facilities in Syria in retaliation for a suspected poison gas attack in Douma on 7 April.
No casualties were reported, which senior Russian military officer Sergei Rudskoy said was the result of the “excellent skills of the Syrian military trained by our specialists.”
Moscow could now revisit its decision not to supply Damascus with its more recent S-300 air defence system, Rudskoi said.
“Considering what has happened, we consider it possible to reassess this question and not just as far as concerns Syria, but other countries too,” Rudskoi said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013 said after talks with European Union leaders that Moscow had refrained from supplying the powerful S-300 air defence systems to Assad’s government.
However Russia has the S-300 and more recent S-400 systems protecting its air base and naval facility in Syria.
Life is back to normal in Syria's capital Damascus, a day after joint Western strikes in the country in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons, with residents saying "nobody felt anything" pic.twitter.com/akLhMbMsVn
— AFP news agency (@AFP) April 15, 2018
In a telephone conversation with his Iranian counterpart, Putin and Hassan Rouhani agreed that the Western strikes had damaged the chances of achieving a political resolution in the seven-year Syria conflict, according to a Kremlin statement.
“Vladimir Putin, in particular, stressed that if such actions committed in violation of the UN Charter continue, then it will inevitably lead to chaos in international relations,” the Kremlin statement said.
— The Hill (@thehill) April 15, 2018
The US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” program that the United States would announce new economic sanctions on Monday aimed at companies “that were dealing with equipment” related to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged chemical weapons use.
Russian state tv condemns the "shameful attack" on Syria & says western leaders "are lucky it's Putin in the Kremlin…heavy drinking Yeltsin might have given the order to fire back at enemy ships & planes." pic.twitter.com/3Rwz3wt03g
— Steve Rosenberg (@BBCSteveR) April 15, 2018
‘No plans to repeat strikes’
There are no plans as yet to repeat the missile strikes, but Britain will consider further action if President Bashar al-Assad uses chemical weapons against his people again, foreign minister Boris Johnson said on Sunday.
Prime Minister Theresa May could face a bumpy ride when she faces parliament on Monday, where some lawmakers are angry that May took military action without their approval.
Speaking to the BBC, Johnson said that the ‘successful’ strikes on three sites in Syria were a message from the world that enough was enough, but acknowledged he could not say whether Assad still had chemical weapons.
— The Andrew Marr Show (@MarrShow) April 15, 2018
“There is no proposal on the table at the moment for further attacks because so far, thank heavens, the Assad regime have not been so foolish as to launch another chemical weapons attack,” he told the Andrew Marr show.
“If and when such a thing were to happen then clearly, with allies, we would study what the options were.”
What did the West know about the Douma attack?
In a conference call with reporters on Saturday, senior US administration officials said they had a large volume of clear and compelling information, both of chemical weapons use and of President Bashar al-Assad’s culpability in the attack. “The information we have points to the use of both chlorine and sarin, both of which are chemical weapons,” one official said.
The officials said they had videos and photos showing the remnants of at least two chlorine barrel bombs from the attacks with features consistent with chlorine barrel bombs from past attacks. Photographs and video from Douma documented victims suffering from symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals, such as asphyxiation and foaming at the mouth, the officials said.
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) April 16, 2018
Eyewitnesses reported multiple government helicopters over Douma on 7 April and said barrel bombs were dropped from those helicopters, the officials said. They said the only forces with military helicopters in Syria belong to Assad’s government.
Doctors and aid organizations on the ground reported strong smells of chlorine, and described symptoms consistent with exposure to sarin, the senior US officials said.
The officials said that while the available information is much greater on the chlorine use, they also had significant information that also points to use of sarin, which is a nerve agent. Symptoms such as convulsions, in addition to the dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries reported, suggest sarin, which is a much more efficient weapon, they said.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who faces a battle with trade unions at home over rail reforms, was widely seen as facing the sternest test yet of his foreign policy and commander-in-chief mettle.
“We cannot tolerate the normalisation of the use of chemical weapons,” he said in a statement on Saturday, adding that “the facts and the responsibility of the Syrian regime are not in doubt”.
France concluded after technical analysis of open sources and “reliable intelligence” that the Douma attack was carried out by Syrian government forces, a declassified intelligence report said on Saturday.
“On the intelligence collected by our services, and in the absence to date of chemical samples analyzed by our own laboratories, France considers, beyond possible doubt, a chemical attack was carried out against civilians at Douma … and that there is no plausible scenario other than that of an attack by Syrian armed forces,” the report said.
“After examining the videos and images of victims published online, they (intelligence services) were able to conclude with a high degree of confidence that the vast majority are recent and not fabricated,” the report said.
It said no deaths from mechanical injuries were visible and all symptoms were characteristic of a chemical weapons attack, particularly choking agents and organophosphorus agents or hydrocyanic acid.
“Reliable intelligence indicates that Syrian military officials have coordinated what appears to be the use of chemical weapons containing chlorine on Douma, on April 7,” the report said. It gave no other details on the intelligence.
Question of timing
Johnson said May and her cabinet of top ministers had to move quickly on Syria, so could not risk recalling parliament from its holiday break, and added that there were plenty of examples of when a prime minister did not get its approval.
May will make a statement to the House of Commons on Monday, but opposition lawmakers have lined up to call for a more meaningful debate and a possible retrospective vote on the action.
Asked whether he would back a vote at the end of Monday’s debate, opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told the BBC: “Yes I would, because I think parliament should have a say in this and the prime minister could quite easily have done that.”
Corbyn, who questions the legal basis for the decision to join the strikes and accuses May of merely following the lead of US President Donald Trump, said the vote could set out future strategy for Syria, where a seven-year war has killed more than half a million people.
After @Theresa_May’s attack on Syria, I have called for a Wars Powers Act so that governments are held to account by Parliament for what they do in our name.
— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) April 15, 2018
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said sidelining parliament was “a serious mistake”, while the leader of the Green Party Caroline Lucas accused May of timing the strikes to “avoid a debate in parliament”, which she described as “outrageous”.
Air strikes have not resolved situation in Syria so far – nothing I’ve heard persuades me they will do so now. An international strategy for peace must be pursued – not a course that risks dangerous escalation. UK foreign policy should be set by Parliament, not US President.
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) April 14, 2018
Washington, Paris and London have all described the strikes as a success, but all will be mindful of how military action can backfire. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s legacy was tainted by his decision to join the war against Iraq, especially after an inquiry concluded that the decision to press ahead was based on flawed intelligence.
Opinion polls suggest that most Britons, still scarred by the Iraq conflict, do not support military action, with one by Survation taken after the strikes were launched saying 40% of the 2,060 people asked opposed the action. Some 36% supported the strikes.
Survation for Mail on Sunday: UK role in Syrian strikes opposed by 40% to 36% pic.twitter.com/Vtpge8la1j
— John Rentoul (@JohnRentoul) April 15, 2018
Britain is also wary of any retaliatory action by Moscow, which May blamed for the nerve agent poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia last month.
Johnson said Britain would take every possible precaution to defend against any Russian cyber attacks but that London would keep talking to Moscow as it did not “relish” their difficult relationship.
Germany laments cyber-attack
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Sunday criticized Russia for a series of activities beyond its borders, blaming it for a cyber-attack on his own ministry, and said Moscow must change its ways.
Maas listed a series of what he called problematic actions that also included the lack of progress in implementing a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, the Skripal poisoning in Britain, support for the Syrian government, and efforts to influence Western elections.
“We had an attack on the Foreign Ministry where we have to assume that it stemmed from Russia,” he told the German broadcaster ZDF. “We can’t just wish all that away … And I think it’s not only reasonable but necessary to point out that we do not view those as constructive contributions.”
German government officials in February disclosed what they called an “isolated” cyber-attack on the government computer network that was first discovered in December.
The head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency last week said there was “a high likelihood” that Moscow was behind the attack.
Maas, a Social Democrat who has adopted a tougher stance on Russia than his predecessors from the same party, told the other German public broadcaster, ARD, on Sunday that Moscow had been an increasingly “difficult partner” but Berlin was committed to maintaining dialogue, particularly on the crisis in Syria.
“It is time, I think, to point out that we expect constructive contributions from the Russian side, including on the Syrian conflict. And also that they don’t always simply protect (Syrian President Bashar) al-Assad,” he said.
European Council President Donald Tusk said on Twitter that the European Union supported the strikes and “will stand with our allies on the side of justice”.
Strikes by US, France and UK make it clear that Syrian regime together with Russia & Iran cannot continue this human tragedy, at least not without cost. The EU will stand with our allies on the side of justice.
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) April 14, 2018
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Twitter the international community has the responsibility to identify and hold accountable those responsible of any attack with chemical weapons.
The use of chemical weapons is unacceptable in any circumstances and must be condemned in the strongest terms. The international community has the responsibility to identify and hold accountable those responsible of any attack with chemical weapons. #Syria pic.twitter.com/beF6IEirEP
— Jean-Claude Juncker (@JunckerEU) April 14, 2018
EU foreign ministers will gather today (16 April) in Strasbourg with Russia on the agenda. They will discuss the latest developments in the aftermath of the Skripal attack, including the expulsion of Russian diplomats from a number of EU and non-EU countries.
The Council will discuss the situation in Syria and adopt conclusions.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in a statement backed the strikes, saying they “will reduce the regime’s ability to further attack the people of Syria with chemical weapons”.
NATO expressed “full support for this action intended to degrade the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deter further chemical weapon attacks against the people of Syria,” the alliance said in second statement.
The North Atlantic Council today expressed full support for last night’s actions in Syria. Chemical weapons cannot be used with impunity and cannot be normalised.
Full statement: https://t.co/bwSt2NAyLK
— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) April 14, 2018
“Chemical weapons cannot be used with impunity or become normalised. They are an immediate danger to the Syrian people and to our collective security.”
The European Parliament today is also expected to discuss the Syria situation and its President Antonio Tajani will debrief MEPs following his telephone conversation with Theresa May.
Just spoke with @theresa_may: the strike targeted chemical weapons facilities and the PM confirmed her willingness to continue strong cooperation with European allies. I will report on the conversation at the plenary session opening on Monday, ahead of the Syria debate.
— Antonio Tajani (@EP_President) April 15, 2018