Russia has moved at least 11 navy ships deployed in Syria out to sea in the event of a U.S. military strike, which appears to be imminent in the wake of an exchange of threats between President Trump and Russian officials.
Trump replied early Wednesday to a Russian threat to shoot down any U.S. missiles in Syria with a tweet: “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!'”
The threatened military strike is a response to an alleged chemical attack last week on civilians blamed on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Israel-based commercial organization ImageSat International provided satellite images to Fox News showing 11 Russian naval craft in the port of Tartus have departed, leaving only a single submarine.
The Syrian army also is evacuating military bases and transferring aircraft to bases with strong Russian support.
Meanwhile, a U.S. guided missile destroyer, the U.S.S. Donald Cook, already is in position off the coast of Syria with 75 Tomahawk missiles on board.
The ship also has 20 surface-to-air missiles ready in the case of any confrontation with Russian war planes.
In addition, the French navy ship Aquitaine is in position with 16 cruise missiles.
Also, in a deployment scheduled before the latest escalation, the U.S.S. Harry Truman strike group left Norfolk, Virginia, Wednesday morning on its way to the Mediterranean and is expected to arrive in one week.
The BBC reports British Prime Minister Theresa May is willing to join military action against Syria, even without the consent of Parliament. May said she wants to prevent a repeat of the apparent chemical attack near Damascus, describing it as “abhorrent.”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded to Trump’s tweet Wednesday, according to a translation by the state-run Tass media: “Smart missiles should fly towards terrorists, not the legitimate government which has been fighting against international terrorism in its territory for several years.”
Along with Russia, Iran has played a significant role in the Syrian civil war through its proxy terrorist organization Hezbollah, which has deployed fighters who have helped the regime regain control of rebel-held areas.
Mattis: ‘Still assessing the intelligence’
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was was not definitive when asked Wednesday by reporters whether or not he had seen enough evidence to blame Assad for the chemical attack last week on Syria’s rebel-held town of Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus.
“We’re still assessing the intelligence ourselves, and our allies are still working on this,” he said at the Pentagon.
“We stand ready to provide military options, if they are appropriate, as the president determined.”
However, at the White House Wednesday afternoon, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the evidence was sufficient.
She was asked about Russian claims that the Syria Civil Defense Organization, a U.S.-funded NGO also known at the “white helmets,” concocted the accusation.
“The intelligence provided certainly paints a different picture,” she replied. “The president holds Syria and Russia responsible for this chemical weapons attack.”
Sanders later noted Russia had promised not to allow Syria to carry out any more chemical weapons attacks. Trump responded last year to an alleged Assad chemical attack with the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles on a Syrian airbase. And she pointed to Moscow’s veto of six United Nations resolutions to curb Syrian aggression.
“Both of those things lie at Russia’s feet in terms of responsibility in this process,” she said.
Asked if Russia has firmly established itself as an enemy of America, Sanders said, “We certainly think they’ve proven to be a bad actor, and we hope that that will change.”
Pressing further, the White House spokeswoman was asked: “Are they an enemy of America at this point?”
“That’s something that Russia needs to play a role in determining,” Sanders replied. “We hope that they will not continue to be a bad actor and make changes in their behavior.”
Russia: ‘The missiles will be downed’
Trump’s tweet Wednesday was a response to a warning from Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon that his country will shoot down any U.S. missiles fired at Syria.
Alexander Zasypkin told Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV on Tuesday evening, according to Reuters: “If there is a strike by the Americans, then … the missiles will be downed and even the sources from which the missiles were fired.”
A Russian military official insisted Wednesday the Syrian government had nothing to do with the attack, acknowledging chemical weapons were used.
He contradicted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who has insisted there was no evidence of chemical weapons being used.
Syria also denies chemical weapons were deployed.
The World Health Organization said in a statement Wednesday that after the attack, about 500 people were treated at medical facilities exhibiting symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals.
The symptoms included respiratory failure, severe irritation of mucous membranes and disruption to the central nervous system, CNN reported.
WHO said more than 70 people who took shelter in basements died in the attack.
The organization said 43 of those deaths were related to exposure to toxic chemicals.
‘Dark edge of humanity’
Sen. Corey Gardner, R-Colo., told Fox News Wednesday from the U.S. Capitol Building that the gassing of children marks an escalation of the conflict.
“I think Assad has once against displayed the dark edge of humanity,” he said.
The senator also cited the use of chemical agents in the deadly poisoning of a Russian spy in London last month.
Asked if the U.S. mission has changed in Syria, since ISIS largely had been rooted out, Gardner said the Islamic movement, which aims to establish a state under Islamic law, “continues to be a threat in Syria and the Middle East.”
And he said that with the chemical attack on the Syrian people, “there is no future for Assad in Syria.”
“He cannot be left there,” Gardner said.
The U.S. and its allies, he said, also need to “figure out how to safeguard lives” in Syria, where as many as half a million people have died in the civil war.
“We have to have a coalition of like-minded nations,” he said, noting he will be meeting with leaders of Qatar on Wednesday and has been meeting with Saudi leaders, as well as French and British counterparts.
Politico cited a former national security council official who oversaw Syria in the Obama White House who said he “would expect Russia to try hard to shoot down cruise missiles and claim this as a victory.”
“I would also expect an intensified diplomatic effort to portray the U.S. presence in Syria as illegal, and possibly more aggressive tactics to try to deny U.S. aircraft access to Syrian airspace,” said Alexander Bick.
Analysts worry the presence of Russian soldiers at most significant military targets in Syria presents a major risk of escalation.
Last year, the Trump administration carried out a retaliatory strike on the Syrian airfield where that chemical attack was believed to have originated. This time, the consensus is that any strike will of necessity include multiple targets.