Russian officials sought Thursday to tamp down public fears of a looming conflict with the United States, even as Syrian government forces took control of the town where they are suspected of carrying out a chemical attack last weekend.
Russian military police also entered Douma on Thursday to act as “guarantors of law and order in the town,” the Russian Defense Ministry said, according to Russian news agencies. Russian troops had arrived earlier Monday under the terms of a surrender deal reached with the rebels after the suspected chemical attack – which Russia and Syria say did not happen.
The recapture of Douma, in the region of Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus, effectively represents the end of the war between Syrian President Bashar Assad and the rebel groups opposing his rule. Although chunks of the country remain under opposition control, none are as symbolic as Eastern Ghouta.
But the situation in Syria remained in flux ahead of an anticipated airstrike by the United States, which President Donald Trump has signaled he plans to carry out in response to the suspected use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces.
Trump appeared to moderate his tone with a tweet early Thursday, saying he did not mean to suggest that missile strikes are imminent.
“Never said when an attack on Syria would take place,” he tweeted. “Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”
A spokesman for the Kremlin told reporters Thursday that Russia is watching the American declarations closely.
“We continue to believe that it is extremely important to avoid any steps that may lead to an increase of tensions in Syria,” Dmitry Peskov said.
Russian officials in recent days have warned of the possibility of a direct military confrontation with the United States as a result of a U.S. strike. Any missile attack that puts Russian lives at risk, Moscow has said, would result in Russia striking back at the missiles and at the planes or ships that launched them.
The deliberations by the United States also have put a spotlight on American allies.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday that Germany would not take part in military action but supports any measures that send “a signal that this use of chemical weapons is not acceptable.”
French President Emmanuel Macron has not said whether his country would join possible military operations. But he said France has “proof” that Syrian forces launched chemical attacks that “at least” included chlorine. In comments on TF1 television, Macron offered no details on France’s conclusion.
He insisted, however, that France would not tolerate “regimes that think everything is possible.”
In contrast to Macron’s assertion, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that the United States did not have complete information about what occurred in Syria.
“I cannot tell you that we have evidence, although we certainly have a lot of media or social media indicators that either chlorine or sarin were used,” he told the House Armed Services
Mattis said he hoped that experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons would soon be granted access to Douma, but noted that any possible inspection would not be able to establish who was responsible for the incident.
Asked what his primary concern would be about carrying out a strike, Mattis cited possible civilian casualties. “On a strategic level, it’s how do we keep this from escalating out of control, if you get my drift on that,” he added.
Russia has deployed air defense systems in Syria, including its sophisticated S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile system. The fact that thousands of Russian troops and military advisers are stationed across the country means there is a chance that a large-scale U.S. strike on Syrian government forces would – deliberately or not – also kill Russians, military analysts in Moscow said.
In the wake of Trump’s Wednesday tweet warning Russia of a planned U.S. missile strike, however, Moscow appears to be trying to make clear that it does not want a war and that a limited attack that doesn’t risk Russian lives would not precipitate a military response.
“I rule out a scenario in which the United States will intentionally strike a facility in Syria where Russian servicemen are located,” Military Sciences Academy Vice President Sergei Modestov said in Thursday’s edition of the government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta.
The Kommersant newspaper quoted anonymous Defense Ministry sources as saying that Russia’s General Staff was in touch with the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and expected to receive coordinates on airstrike targets from the Pentagon to avoid Russian casualties.
“Right now, the talk is about the necessity of de-escalation,” said Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst in Moscow. “We’ve practically come to the brink of war.”
On the ground, fighters from the hard-line Jaish al-Islam group have trickled out of Douma in recent days under the terms of a deal that followed Saturday’s suspected chemical attack. Local residents said Wednesday that the militants insisted on emptying their magazines into the air instead of handing them to the Syrian military, and that they wounded civilians in the process.
But by Thursday morning, a monitoring group reported that they had surrendered their weapons altogether. Russia says that more than 13,000 militants and their families have left Douma since April 1.
Negotiations for the group’s withdrawal took months, stalling and resuming as the fighting ebbed and flowed. But Jaish al-Islam’s political chief said Thursday that the suspected chemical attack was the final straw.
“Of course, the chemical attack is what pushed us to agree,” Yasser Dalwan told the Agence France-Presse news agency.
The World Health Organization has said that during the shelling of Douma on Saturday, about 500 patients exhibited “signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals.”
A network of local flight monitors said they tracked several helicopters heading southwest from a government air base on Saturday evening. The same models of aircraft were then seen circling over Douma at 7:26 p.m. and 7:38 p.m.
Reports of a suspected gas attack began circulating minutes later. In one apartment block, rescuers found rooms filled with tangled bodies and the stench of chlorine. Some people died foaming at the mouth, according to video footage.
Russia, however, said its specialists who have visited Douma have found no evidence of a chemical attack. Instead, Saturday’s incident represented the latest example of rebels trying to stage such an attack to undermine the Assad regime, Lt. Gen. Viktor Poznikhir, deputy chief of operations of the Russian General Staff, said Wednesday.
Rebel supporters on Saturday “once again tried to imitate in front of video cameras a staged chemical attack on civilians in the town of Douma,” he said.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Anton Troianovski, Louisa Loveluck