US President Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS
US President Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS

Washington — President Donald Trump was evasive on Thursday over when the US might fire missiles at Syria in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack, saying they could come at any time.

Tension mounted among top world powers over the alleged chemical attack against civilians in the Syrian town of Douma.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday he had proof Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons and would respond "at a time of our choosing". One day after warning regime-backer Russia that "missiles will be coming" to Syria, Trump in an early morning tweet storm wrote: "Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!"

British Prime Minister Theresa May was due to hold an emergency cabinet meeting amid speculation she would support US action against the Syrian regime.

Germany’s Angela Merkel said it was "obvious" that Syria had not eradicated its chemical arsenal as it claimed.

A video published on social media on April 10 2018 supposedly shows the remains of a missile used in a suspected chemical attack in the Syrian town of Douma.

Meanwhile, opponents of unilateral US action called an emergency closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council for Thursday.

The White House has said that Trump holds Assad’s regime and its military backer Russia responsible for the alleged attack on Douma on Saturday, which rescue workers said killed more than 40 people.

Trump on Wednesday slammed Russia for its military alliance with Assad, saying it should not "be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it".

US officials have refused to rule out direct military engagement with Russia, with the White House, saying that "all options are on the table".

Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said on Wednesday the Pentagon was ready to provide options for a Syria strike but the US and its allies were still "assessing the intelligence" on the suspected chemical attack. A special hotline for the US and Russian militaries to communicate about operations in Syria was being used by both sides, Moscow said on Thursday.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned that it was "crucial to avoid any steps that could lead to heightened tensions" as this would have an "extremely destructive influence" on attempts to resolve the conflict.

Eastern Ghouta

Assad warned on Thursday that threats of western military action "will only contribute to further destabilisation in the region". Russia warned the US against carrying out a "military intervention on fabricated pretexts" and accused the White Helmets civil-defence organisation in Syria of staging a fake chemical weapons attack.

The Russian army declared early on Thursday that the Syrian state flag was flying in Douma. Moscow said that this was a "significant event in the history of Syria", meaning that the whole of Eastern Ghouta had come under the control of government forces.

Rebels in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta surrendered their heavy weapons and their leader left the enclave, while the Syrian flag was raised over the central mosque, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

However, Douma residents told AFP that a dispute subsequently erupted, with shots fired. The flag was taken down from the mosque.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday said he had met ambassadors from the five permanent members of the security council, including Russia and the US, and "stressed the need to avoid the situation spiralling out of control".

At the UN Security Council, Moscow and Washington have so far vetoed each other’s motions to set up an international investigation into chemical weapons use.

Macron has insisted he does "not want an escalation" and any response would focus on Syria’s chemical capabilities, not on allies of the regime.

Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed that those behind the killings of civilians would pay a "heavy price", after the foreign ministry said there was a "strong suspicion" Assad’s regime was responsible. Erdogan said on Thursday that Turkey was worried by the "arm wrestling" of world powers over Syria.

Syria said it had invited the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which has blamed the regime for previous attacks, to visit Douma.

The OPCW, which works to rid the world of chemical arms stockpiles, said it would "shortly" deploy a fact-finding team there for an investigation.

Syria’s White Helmets said the attack used what it called poisonous chlorine gas.

"More than 500 cases ... were brought to local medical centres with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent", including "respiratory distress" and foaming at the mouth, the Syrian American Medical Society and the White Helmets said in a joint statement.

Damascus agreed to hand over its chemical arsenal in 2013, narrowly avoiding US and French air strikes in retaliation for a suspected sarin attack.