UK ambassador to the UN Karen Pierce, front left, listens as her US counterpart, Nikki Haley, addresses the Security Council meeting on Syria at UN headquarters in New York on April 9 2018. Picture: REUTERS
UK ambassador to the UN Karen Pierce, front left, listens as her US counterpart, Nikki Haley, addresses the Security Council meeting on Syria at UN headquarters in New York on April 9 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Washington —The US maintained the threat of missile strikes on Wednesday in response to alleged chemical attacks in Syria, despite the risk of triggering a head-on clash with Damascus ally Russia.

Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, said in the comments broadcast on Tuesday evening that any US missiles fired at Syria would be shot down and the launch sites targeted.

"If there is a strike by the Americans then … the missiles will be downed and even the sources from which the missiles were fired," he told Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV.

In the face of intense world outrage, the UN Security Council failed to agree a global response to the incident on Tuesday, after Washington and Moscow opposed each other’s rival motions to set up an international investigation into chemical weapons use in the seven-year-old conflict.

Trump has made it clear he plans to make the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, and perhaps his Russian and Iranian backers, pay for the latest alleged toxic gas atrocity in the war-wracked country.

According to rescue workers, on Saturday more than 40 people died in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma in an alleged chemical attack, which left victims struggling to breathe, foaming at the mouth and with discoloured skin.

Trump and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis cancelled travel plans as the USS Donald Cook, a guided-missile destroyer, moved within striking range of Syria

The US, Britain and France have argued the incident bears all the hallmarks of a strike ordered by the regime of Russia’s ally Assad, which has been blamed for previous attacks by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Trump has warned there will be a "big price to pay", and Washington’s UN ambassador Nikki Haley made it clear the failure to secure a Security Council vote would not hold America and its allies back.

"Russia has trashed the credibility of the council," she said. "Whenever we propose anything meaningful on Syria, Russia vetoes it. It is a travesty."

Haley dismissed the Russian draft as "all about protecting the Assad regime" because of provisions that would have required the Security Council to endorse its findings — in other words, giving Russia a veto over any attempt to apportion blame.

Russia, in turn, vetoed the US-backed motion, which would have re-established an international joint investigative mechanism to probe chemical strikes in Syria and to identify culprits.

Moscow’s UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, accused Haley of seeking a vote to provide cover for a Western military strike on Assad, which now seems all the more likely.

"If you took the decision to carry out an illegal military adventure, and we do hope that you will come to your senses, well then you will have to bear responsibility for it," he said.

Both Trump and US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis abruptly cancelled upcoming travel plans on Tuesday, as the USS Donald Cook — a guided-missile destroyer — moved to within striking range of Syria.

Air traffic control agency Eurocontrol has also released an alert from the European Aviation Safety Agency to flight operators in nearby airspace.

"Due to the possible launch of air strikes into Syria with air-to-ground and/or cruise missiles within the next 72 hours, and the possibility of intermittent disruption of radio navigation equipment, due consideration needs to be taken when planning flight operations in the Eastern Mediterranean/Nicosia FIR area," it said.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been co-ordinating closely with Washington, said he would decide on a response "in the coming days".

"Our decision will not target allies of the regime or attack anyone but rather attack the regime’s chemical capabilities," he said, insisting he did "not want an escalation".

As it looked to head off the threat of Western strikes, Syria said it had invited the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to visit the site of the alleged attack in Douma, a settlement in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta that is falling to the regime after a long and bloody siege.

The intergovernmental anti-chemical weapons group said it would "shortly" deploy a fact-finding team to Douma for an investigation, but US officials said they were working from their own information and would not necessarily hold back.

Damascus also mobilised overnight on Tuesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said the army had "put all military positions on alert, including airports and all bases, for a period of 72 hours".

A source from a pro-regime unit told AFP on Tuesday there were "precautionary measures being taken by the Syrian army, especially the airports and military bases".

Residents in the capital were also bracing for a potential response. "I have lived through seven American presidents, but Trump is the craziest and his administration is unbalanced," said 70-year-old Abu Fadi.

"I think his threats are to be feared, and we should take them seriously."

In 2017, Trump launched a cruise missile strike against a Syrian air base in retaliation for a sarin attack the UN later pinned on Assad.

Syria’s government has denied accusations of using banned weapons such as chlorine or sarin throughout the country’s civil war.

Douma has been heavily bombed by the regime and Russia, making it extremely difficult for media, including AFP, to independently verify the claims.

UN chief Antonio Guterres said on Tuesday the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons should be granted unfettered access to investigate.

It does not have a mandate to establish who is responsible for attacks, and the joint Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-UN task force that once did was shut down by Russia last year after it blamed the Syria regime.

Damascus agreed to hand over its chemical arsenal in 2013, narrowly avoiding American and French air strikes in retaliation for a suspected sarin attack. That incident, which killed hundreds, also took place in Eastern Ghouta.

Trump has threatened to respond "forcefully" to the most recent allegations, saying the US had "a lot of options militarily" and would decide in the coming days.

The White House said that, in a telephone call, Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May "agreed not to allow the use of chemical weapons to continue".

AFP and Reuters