President Donald Trump warned on Wednesday that airstrikes against Syria were imminent after a Russian diplomat pledged that U.S. missiles would be shot down and their launch sites targeted. On Thursday, Trump offered a potentially different time frame.
"Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria," Trump said in a Wednesday tweet. "Get ready Russia because they will be coming, nice and new and 'smart.'"
Our relationship with Russia is worse now than it has ever been, and that includes the Cold War. There is no reason for this. Russia needs us to help with their economy, something that would be very easy to do, and we need all nations to work together. Stop the arms race?
On Thursday morning, the president tweeted that he "never said when an attack on Syria would take place."
Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all! In any event, the United States, under my Administration, has done a great job of ridding the region of ISIS. Where is our “Thank you America?”
His comments follow an alleged chemical attack on a rebel enclave near Damascus over the weekend, and come after the Russian ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, warned that American military assets would be targeted in the event of a strike against Syria.
"If there is a strike by the Americans, then we refer to the statements of President (Vladimir) Putin and the chief of staff that the missiles will be downed and even the sources from which the missiles were fired," he told Hezbollah's al-Manar TV.
The Russian military announced later on Wednesday that it was sending troops to secure Douma, where dozens were allegedly killed Saturday in a suspected poison gas attack.
A Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, also told NBC News that "there are Russians present in large numbers in Syria, and Russia will do everything to protect its people on Syrian soil."
Zakharova responded to Trump's comments in a subsequent Facebook post.
"Smart missiles should be aimed at terrorists, not at the legitimate [Syrian] government that is fighting international terrorism on its territory," she said.
She defended the president's threats toward Russia, saying that he isn’t telegraphing any military action by tweeting his thoughts. She said Trump is withholding any particular timetable on military action and "missiles" represent just one of many options he is considering, and no final decisions have been made.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who also canceled plans to travel to California in the coming days, sounded a more cautious note.
“We are still assessing the intelligence — ourselves and our allies," he told reporters alongside his Dutch counterpart Wednesday. "We’re still working on this."
French President Emmanuel Macron has called for a "strong and joint response" to the latest incident.
Macron also said France, the U.S. and Britain would decide how to respond in the coming days.
“Chemical weapons capabilities” were legitimate targets, he said, but added that allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were not. In addition to Russia, Iran and Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah support the Syrian strongman.
Trump has also spoken by phone with British Prime Minister Theresa May, who on Wednesday said all indications were that the Syrian government was behind the attack in Douma.
"The use of chemical weapons cannot go unchallenged," she told reporters in Birmingham, central England. "We'll be working with our closest allies to consider how we can ensure that those responsible are held to account, and also how we can prevent and deter the humanitarian catastrophe of the use of chemical weapons in the future."
Eurocontrol, the pan-European air traffic control agency, warned airlines Tuesday to exercise caution in the eastern Mediterranean due to possible airstrikes in the next 72 hours. Air France confirmed to NBC News that it had heeded the warning and adjusted its plans for its Beirut and Tel Aviv flights.