West weighs Syria attack

British ministers planned to gather on Thursday to discuss whether to join the United States and France in a possible military attack on Syria that threatens to bring Western and Russian forces into direct confrontation.

Prime Minister Theresa May recalled the ministers from their Easter holiday for a special cabinet meeting on how to respond to what she has cast as a barbaric poison gas attack by Syrian government forces on civilians in the formerly rebel-held town of Douma, just east of the capital Damascus. There were signs, though, of a global effort to head off a dangerous conflict pitting Russia against the West. The Kremlin said a crisis communications link with the US, created to avoid an accidental clash over Syria, was in use.

The British cabinet meeting was due to begin at 1430 GMT. “The situation in Syria is horrific, the use of chemical weapons is something the world has to prevent,” Brexit minister David Davis said on Thursday morning.

“But also it’s a very, very delicate circumstance and we’ve got to make this judgment on a very careful, very deliberate, very well thought-through basis.”

However, US President Donald Trump cast doubt on Thursday over the timing of his threatened strike on Syria in response to a reported poison gas attack, while France said it had proof of Syria’s guilt but needed to gather more information. “Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!” the US president said in his latest early morning tweet on Thursday.

Russia, the Syrian government’s most important ally in its seven-year-old war with rebels, said it had deployed military police in Douma on Thursday after the town was taken over by government forces. “They are the guarantors of law and order in the town,” RIA news agency quoted Russia’s defence ministry as saying.

US President Donald Trump warned Russia on Wednesday that missiles “will be coming” in response to the April 7 gas attack, alleged to have killed dozens of people, and lambasted Moscow for standing by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Syria’s military has repositioned some air assets to avoid fallout from possible missile strikes, US officials told Reuters on Wednesday.

Syria’s attempt to shelter aircraft, perhaps by locating them alongside Russian military hardware that Washington might be reluctant to hit, could limit damage that the United States and its allies might be able to inflict on Assad’s military.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said pro-Syrian government forces were emptying main airports and military air bases. World stocks edged down as anxious investors stayed wary of risky assets.

MATTIS CAUTIOUS

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, striking a cautious tone after Trump’s threat of missile strikes, said on Wednesday the United States was assessing intelligence about the suspected toxic gas attack.

Asked if he had seen enough evidence to blame the Syrian president, Mattis said: “We’re still working on this.” Both Syria and Russia have said reports of the attack were fabricated by rebels and rescue workers in Douma and have accused the United States of seeking to use it as a pretext to attack the government.

Russian military said it had observed movements of US Navy in the Gulf. Any US strike would probably involve the navy, given the risk to aircraft from Russian and Syrian air defences. A guided-missile destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, is in the Mediterranean.

Moscow’s ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, warned on Wednesday that any US missiles fired at Syria would be shot down and the launch sites targeted. The Syrian conflict has increasingly widened the rifts between Moscow, Washington and European powers and inflamed the bitter rivalries that run across West Asia.

Syria, Iran and Russia say Israel was behind an air strike on a Syrian air base on Monday that killed seven Iranian military personnel, something Israel has neither confirmed nor denied.