Kremlin officials on Monday publicly distanced themselves from a what appeared to be a threat by commanders on the ground in Syria to attack US interests if the Trump administration orders any more strikes against the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
The move came in reaction to a statement published by the Assad-friendly Al-Watan newspaper and attributed to the joint command center in Syria that is shared by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah militia and other forces supporting the regime in the ongoing civil war.
“The aggression against Syria oversteps all red lines,” the statement said. “We will react firmly to any aggression against Syria and to any infringement of red lines, whoever carries them out.”
The statement was plainly a reaction to the decision by President Trump last Thursday to fire 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase in retaliation for the Assad regime’s apparent use of chemical weapons against the civilian population of the town of Idlib, an attack that killed dozens, including children. It also came not long after top Trump administration officials said plainly that more attacks against Syria were possible if the regime continues to target civilians.
“The strike was a message to Bashar al-Assad that your multiple violations of your agreements at the UN, your agreements under the chemical weapons charter back in 2013 that those would not go without a response in the future,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in an interview with ABC News broadcast Sunday morning.
“Our objective was to deter continued use of chemical weapons,” said National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. “We’re prepared to do more.” However, the Russian leadership, while it condemned the US attack, quickly repudiated the statement published in Al-Watan.
“We are not aware about that; we cannot confirm that, and we do not know where Reuters got this and where these anonymous sources appeared from again,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, referring to one of the news wires that reported on the statement.
Until the promise of retaliation was published, Russian officials had been very careful in their condemnation of the US attack, claiming that it violated international law, among other things, but not threatening action against the United States.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned that the missile attacks had placed the US “on the verge” of conflict with Russia in a highly critical Facebook post.
“The Trump administration proved that it will fiercely fight the legitimate Syrian government, in a tough contradiction with international law and without UN approval, in violation of its own procedures stipulating that the Congress must first be notified of any military operation unrelated to aggression against the US. On the verge of a military clash with Russia.”
Medvedev added, “This military action is a clear indication of the US President’s extreme dependency on the opinion of the Washington establishment, the one that the new president strongly criticized in his inauguration speech. Soon after his victory, I noted that everything would depend on how soon Trump’s election promises would be broken by the existing power machine. It took only two and a half months.”
As a backdrop to this, senior US officials including UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain over the weekend all suggested that US sanctions against Russia should be tightened as a consequence for ongoing Kremlin support for the Assad regime.
The further deterioration of the relationship between Washington and Moscow comes just days before Secretary of State Tillerson is scheduled to visit Russia for high-level talks with senior officials.