Trump Promises Strike on Syria and Warns Russia Against Backing Assad
WASHINGTON — President Trump put Syria and Russia on notice Wednesday morning in a Twitter post, promising that missiles fired at Syria “will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’” and telling the Kremlin that it should not partner with a “Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!” After the threat, the president said in a separate tweet that relations between the United States and Russia are worse than ever.
On Tuesday, the Russian ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, warned the United States and its allies that any missiles fired at Syria would be shot down, according to a Reuters report. There were already indications that Syria was moving key aircraft to a Russian base in the Mediterranean Sea, taking pains to protect important weapons systems.
Mr. Trump’s early morning comments were remarkable in that he is, in some way, telegraphing the United States’ response to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, which is something he had previously criticized other leaders for doing. Mr. Trump has said publicly that sharing military plans could give enemies information they could use to their advantage.
But his subsequent tweet struck a different tone. After he warned Russia what it would be up against in Syria, Mr. Trump lamented that relations between the two countries were worse than during the Cold War, a decades-long geopolitical and ideological rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union when both were armed for, and prepared for, nuclear war.
Russia has blamed the suspected chemical attacks on the Syrian opposition forces. On Wednesday, Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, said that if the American missiles were so smart then they should hit “terrorists” and not government targets. She also suggested in a posting on Facebook that the missile attack might destroy evidence of the use of chemical weapons.
Mr. Trump has been critical of Russia and its president, Vladimir V. Putin, for supporting the Syrian regime, led by Bashar al-Assad, believed to be behind the suspected chemical weapons attack on April 7 that has left dozens dead.
The World Health Organization has not confirmed the use of a chemical weapon in Syria. On Wednesday, the organization said that there were reports of about 500 people in the Damascus suburb of Douma who have symptoms similar to people exposed to toxic chemicals. It said about 70 people had died while taking shelter in basements and 43 of them had signs of being exposed to “highly toxic chemicals.”
Mr. Trump’s comments about poor relations with Russia echoed what the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said recently in response to the wave of diplomatic expulsions of Russians from the United States and other countries, according to a Reuters report. The expulsions were a coordinated response to the poisoning in Britain of a former Russian spy and his daughter. Since then, analysts have said the Balkans could become a battleground for a new Cold War.
The tough talk on Russia, in response to the suspected chemical attack in Syria, is a new tone for Mr. Trump, who has long pushed for improved relations with the Kremlin. Recently, Mr. Trump praised Mr. Putin for his re-election and even invited him to the White House.
Later on Wednesday morning, Mr. Trump clarified his assessment of the poor relations with Russia in another tweet, blaming the decline in Washington-Moscow ties on the ongoing investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.
Russia has been a dominant theme during Mr. Trump’s entire presidency, particularly with the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russia’s election interference.
The president repeated his frustrations about the ongoing inquiry, which he said was led by Democrats or others who worked for former President Barack Obama.
Earlier this week, the F.B.I. raided the offices and hotel room of Mr. Trump’s personal attorney, Michael D. Cohen, enraging the president, who called it an “attack on our country in a true sense.” Mr. Trump, however, has not used similarly strong language about Russia’s election activities which started as early as 2014.
When it comes Syria, however, Mr. Trump takes a tougher line and has blamed Mr. Putin for supporting the Syrian regime. Mr. Trump called the suspected chemical attack a “barbaric act” and suggested Mr. Putin bears some responsibility. “He may, and if he does, it’s going to be very tough, very tough,” Mr. Trump said on Monday. “Everybody’s going to pay a price. He will, everybody will.”
Mr. Trump canceled a planned trip to Latin America later this week in order to oversee an American response to Syria, the White House said. And the president met with his military commanders on Monday to discuss options.
But publicly discussing American military plans is in contrast to how he has said he would conduct himself as commander in chief.
During tensions with North Korea in April of 2017, he said in an interview on “Fox & Friends” that he would not say whether he would order a strike if the rogue nation continued conducting missile tests.
“I don’t want to telegraph what I am doing or what I am thinking,” Mr. Trump said. “I am not like other administrations, where they say, ‘We are going to do this in four weeks.’ It doesn’t work that way. We’ll see what happens.”
That was the kind of message that Mr. Trump repeatedly delivered as a presidential candidate, mocking former President Barack Obama for giving adversaries too much information by setting timelines for withdrawal from combat zones.
And, indeed, while he has not set a public withdrawal deadline for American forces in Syria the way Mr. Obama did for other combat zones, just last week Mr. Trump set a private one that quickly became public when he told military commanders that ideally he wanted to pull troops out of Syria within a few months.