The Syrian government has put its forces on “high alert” amid the looming threat of a US military response following Saturday’s suspected chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town near Damascus.
US President Donald Trump has described the apparent chlorine barrel bomb attack on Douma as “atrocious” and pledged to respond “forcefully”.
Syria’s government and its ally Russia have denied the chemical attack took place, but rescuers and medics said that dozens of people, including many women and children, were killed.
Trump met both his cabinet and top generals on Monday and promised “major decisions over the next 24 to 48 hours,” in response to the attack.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump would not travel to Latin America, as planned, and would instead remain in the US to “oversee the American response to Syria and to monitor developments around the world”.
The DPA news agency reported on Tuesday that the Syrian army had put all military positions on alert, including airports and all bases, for 72 hours.
It said the alert included all army positions and bases in the southern province of Sweida, Aleppo province, Latakia and Deir Az Zor province.
Separately, the pro-government Al Masdar news website reported that the Russian Navy’s Black Sea fleet had also been placed on high alert after a US warship reportedly left Cyprus for Syrian waters.
There was no official response from Russia on the announcement.
But the news comes as at least one US guided-missile destroyer set off for the coast of Syria after Trump stated the possibility of a military response.
Vladimir Shamanov, a former commander-in-chief of the Russian Airborne Troops, vowed that Russia would take all political, diplomatic and military retaliatory measures if the US carried out any attacks in Syria.
“The politics of double standards have hit rock bottom. And here, the United Russia party conscientiously states that all political, diplomatic and military measures if necessary will be taken,” Shamanov told a plenary meeting of the State Duma.
Similarly, the Russian foreign ministry warned against “military intervention under far-fetched and fabricated pretexts”.
The United States, France, and the UK have ramped up pressure on Syria’s government by pledging strong reactions to the alleged gas attack on Douma, the last town still held by rebels in their former bastion of Eastern Ghouta.
France warned on Tuesday it would retaliate against Assad if evidence emerges that the “red line” of chemical weapons had been crossed in Douma.
Speaking to Europe 1 radio, French President Emmanuel Macron said intelligence shared with Trump “in theory confirms the use of chemical weapons.”
On Monday, US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, told an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council that Washington was ready to “respond” to the attack regardless of whether the Security Council acted or not.
Meanwhile, Theresa May, the British prime minister, said that the Syrian government “and its backers, including Russia, must be held to account” if it is found to be responsible for dropping chemical weapons on Douma residents.
But Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov warned that “making any deductions is wrong and dangerous”, suggesting that rebels could have staged the attack themselves to pin the blame on Damascus.
Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said Russian specialists had found no trace of a chemical attack on Douma.
The heated exchange of remarks also came after missiles struck a Syrian airbase in Homs province earlier on Monday, state media reported, with Russia and Syria blaming Israel for carrying out the attack.
Two Israeli fighter jets, using Lebanese airspace, fired eight missiles at the T-4 military airbase, the Russian military said, but offered no further information.
The attack at the airbase, located 40km west of Palmyra, killed and wounded several people, Syrian state news agency SANA reported, citing an unnamed military source.
Since February 18, the Syrian government’s Ghouta offensive has killed more than 1,600 civilians.