America's allies are offering to join a possible military response to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. But they're urging Washington to avoid swift retaliation, saying that before a reprisal is launched, more evidence is needed that Syria was behind the chemical attack.
In very direct terms, U.S. President Donald Trump warned on Twitter Wednesday that a military response was coming:
Russian officials were quick to respond, saying if there was an American strike, then Russia would shoot down the missiles and target the positions from where they were launched.
"Smart missiles should fly toward terrorists, not the legal government that has been fighting international terrorism for several years on its territory," Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova remarked in a Facebook post.
Amid the heated social media exchange with threats and counterwarnings, all raising the stakes of a military confrontation between the U.S. and Russia, Britain, France and Australia offered backing for a U.S. missile strike, but they weighted their backing with caveats.
And they questioned the deterrent effect of missile strikes, pointing out that U.S. military retaliation a year ago in response to a Syrian government sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun in the northern Syrian province of Idlib had failed to stop Assad from launching other chemical attacks, predominantly with chlorine barrel bombs dropped from regime helicopters.
In a phone conversation with Trump late Tuesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May offered her support but, according to British officials, said Britain would need more evidence of who was behind the suspected chemical attack on Saturday on a rebel-held Damascus suburb. The attack left at least 40 people dead and up to 500 injured.
With inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) preparing to visit the suburb of Douma, the site of the attack, other Western allies said there should be no action until more facts were established.
France's President Emmanuel Macron has said France is ready to commit to punitive action, if it is confirmed that Assad crossed a red line and used chemical weapons. But he appears to want to limit retaliatory strikes to Syrian government chemical weapons facilities.
With the U.S. and its Western allies telegraphing a possible military response, analysts say they have lost the element of surprise and given the Syrian government and its military backers Russia and Iran plenty of time to get ready for an attack.
"The obvious pitfall for this likely U.S.-France-U.K. strike on Assad is that the effect of surprise is totally lost but also has given enough time for the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran to get prepared with anti-aircraft batteries and to empty potential targets," said Olivier Guitta, managing director at GlobalStrat, a security and geopolitical risk consultancy.
He said the situation now was different from 2013 when Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, threatened to strike at Assad for a chemical attack, also on rebels and civilians in a Damascus suburb.
"Then the repercussions would have been much less in terms of actors because Iran and Russia were barely present in Syria," he said. "While a strike on Assad is more than overdue since 2013, there's a risk of conflagration, escalation and the first actual fighting between Russia and the West, opening the door to a longer, protracted conflict," he warned.
That fear also appeared to be weighing on the minds of European governments allied with the U.S., including among members of May's ruling Conservative Party in Britain, who worry that the Trump administration has no overall strategy for Syria.
"There are worries about being involved in any military action," said David Amess, a British lawmaker. "Given the disastrous consequences of our involvement in Iraq, we need a strategy. We need it clearly laid out to parliament, what our objectives are. This is not a straightforward issue and we need to wait for the reports from the OPCW. This is a very dangerous and worrying time."
Like other senior Conservative lawmakers, he said the prime minister would have no option but to seek parliamentary approval before ordering any strike on Syria. Julian Lewis, chairman of the British Parliament's defense committee, said Tuesday: "When we are contemplating military intervention in other people's conflicts, Parliament ought to be consulted first."
That raises the prospect of a repeat of the setback suffered by May's predecessor in Downing Street, David Cameron, who sought Parliament's agreement in 2013 to participate in a U.S.-led military strike on Syria, only to lose the vote. The withholding of British support contributed to Obama's decision to stay his hand and not to enforce his "red line" on the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government.
British officials said Trump had not formally asked May to participate in military action. They also said there were no immediate plans to recall the House of Commons, which is currently in recess. But May has called for a meeting Thursday of her “war cabinet,” prompting concern among opposition leaders that she might commit to some joint action without seeking parliamentary approval first.
In a statement after May’s conversation with the U.S. leader, Downing Street said the two had agreed that the international community had to respond, but they stopped short of blaming the Syrian government, which denies being behind the Douma attack. That contrasted with the tone of U.S. officials, who have been clear in pointing the finger at Assad.
The former head of British armed forces, Lord Richard Dannatt, said that if the U.S and Britain did take action, it shouldn't be restricted to an isolated retaliatory strike, which, he said, on its own would be meaningless.
A reprisal, he said, has to be done within a "broader strategy." He said an isolated "missile strike like the one Donald Trump ordered last year wouldn't achieve anything, and that didn't achieve anything."
Dannatt dismissed various and shifting Russian explanations for the attack, including Kremlin claims that the White Helmets, a first-response volunteer organization operating in parts of rebel-controlled Syria, could have faked the attack. "The Russians have developed fake news into an art form," he said.
"Up to this moment, it has seemed much more than likely, and high on the balance of probabilities, that this was an attack using chemical weapons carried out by the Syrian regime. ... And it is right that they don't get away with it," he said.