U.S. President Donald Trump warned Russia on Wednesday of imminent military action in Syria over a suspected poison gas attack, declaring that missiles “will be coming”.
He lambasted Moscow for standing by Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Trump was responding to a Russian warning on Tuesday that any U.S. missiles fired at Syria over the assault on a rebel enclave would be shot down and the launch sites targeted.
“Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’,” Trump wrote in a post on Twitter.
“You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!” Trump said, referring Moscow’s alliance with Assad.
In response, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said “smart missiles should fly towards terrorists, not legal government”.
Damascus and Moscow refer to rebels fighting Assad as terrorists.
The Syrian government and Russia say the reports of a poison gas assault on the Syrian town of Douma are bogus.
After the attack, the rebel group holed up in Douma – Jaish al-Islam – finally agreed to withdraw from the town.
That sealed a big victory for Assad, who has now crushed the rebellion in the eastern Ghouta region near Damascus.
Moscow’s threat to shoot down U.S. missiles came from the Russian ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, who said he was referring to a statement by President Vladimir Putin and the Russian armed forces chief of staff.
Zasypkin also said that any hostilities with Washington should be avoided and Moscow was ready for negotiations.
But his remarks could raise fears of direct conflict for the first time between major powers backing opposing sides in Syria’s protracted civil war.
The WHO said on Wednesday that 43 people had died in Saturday’s attack on the town of Douma from “symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals”, and more than 500 in all had been treated.
The Kremlin said on Wednesday it hoped all sides involved in Syria would avoid doing anything that could destabilise an already fragile situation in the Middle East, and made clear it strongly opposed any U.S. strike on its ally.
Moscow and Washington stymied attempts by each other at the UN Security Council on Tuesday to set up international investigations into chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
Trump on Tuesday canceled a planned trip to Latin America on Friday to focus instead on talks with Western allies about possible military action to punish Assad over the suspected gas attack.
Trump had on Monday warned of a quick, forceful response once responsibility for the attack was established.
“If there is a strike by the Americans, then … the missiles will be downed and even the sources from which the missiles were fired,” Zasypkin, the Russian ambassador, told Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV, speaking in Arabic.
The Russian military said on March 13 that it would respond to any U.S. strike on Syria by targeting any missiles and launchers involved.
Russia is Assad’s most powerful ally and its air power has helped the Syrian Army wrest back large areas of territory from rebels since 2015.
Zasypkin also said a clash between Russia and the United States over Syria “should be ruled out and therefore we are ready to hold negotiations”.