Russia warns US launching air strikes could spark a war

Russia has warned the US against launching air strikes, saying it could spark a war between the two countries • Western Allies move closer to agreeing on a response to Saturday's Syria suspected chemical attack

Russia is an ally of Syria and has backed the government (Photo:BBC)
Russia is an ally of Syria and has backed the government (Photo:BBC)

Russia has warned the US against launching air strikes in response to a suspected attack in Syria, saying it could spark a war between the two countries.

"The immediate priority is to avert the danger of war," Moscow's UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said on Thursday.

He accused Washington of putting international peace at risk and said the situation was "very dangerous".

Western allies, including the US, the UK, and France, are thought to be preparing for strikes, but Russia, a Syrian ally, has strongly opposed such action.

Asked if he was referring to a war between the United States and Russia, Nebenzia told reporters: “We cannot exclude any possibilities unfortunately because we saw messages that are coming from Washington. They were very bellicose.”

He said there was a heightened "danger of escalation" because of the Russian military presence in Syria.

Senior Russian figures, including the head of the military, have warned that US missiles will be shot down and their launch sites targeted if Russian personnel come under threat.

Nebenzia also called for the UN Security Council to meet again on Friday to discuss the possibility of Western military action.

Meanwhile, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) says experts are travelling to Syria and will start investigations on Saturday.

What is the West planning?

Western leaders have been planning a response to Saturday's suspected chemical attack.

Opposition activists, rescue workers and medics say dozens of people died in a suspected chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Douma on Saturday.

President Bashar al-Assad's government - which receives military backing from Russia - denies any involvement and says reports of a chemical attack are "fabricated".

But the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), which records alleged violations of international law in Syria, said bodies were found with oral foaming, cyanosis, and corneal burns.

On Thursday, US officials said that samples from victims had tested positive for chlorine and a nerve agent.

Similarly, French President Emmanuel Macron said he had "proof" that the Syrian government had attacked Douma with chemical weapons, without giving further details.

In the UK, cabinet ministers agreed that it was "highly likely" the Assad regime was responsible for the alleged attack and said the use of chemical weapons must not "go unchallenged".

Cabinet ministers agreed "on the need to take action" in Syria to "deter the further use of chemical weapons", Downing Street has said.

There have been calls from opposition parties and some Conservative MPs for Parliament to have a vote beforehand.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has accused the government of "waiting for instructions" from President Trump and said military action was unlikely to solve the situation in Syria.

He said: "More bombing, more killing, more war will not save life. It will just take more lives and spawn the war elsewhere."

During a phone call late on Thursday, UK Prime Minister Theresa May and US President Donald Trump agreed on the need to deter chemical weapon use in Syria.

Donald Trump was quick to say that Russian President Vladimir Putin was responsible for the chemical attack, because he supported the Syrian government.

On Thursday, Donald Trump consulted his top national security advisers on a US response but the White House spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, said on Thursday “no final decision has been taken”.

On Wednesday, the president tweeted that US missiles “will be coming” and told Russia, which has forces in Syria, to “get ready”. But the next morning, Trump tweeted that he “never said when an attack on Syria would take place”. An attack, the president said “could be very soon or not so soon at all!”

Also on Thursday, US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis told a congressional panel: "I believe there was a chemical attack and we are looking for the actual evidence."

Mattis said he believed chemical weapons had been used, but “we are looking for evidence” on who was responsible. Trump has blamed Assad and Russia for backing him.

Mattis appealed at the meeting for more time to gather evidence to prove the Assad regime was responsible for the attack. But the administration appeared determined to deliver on the president’s threat to punish the use of poison gas.

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