(CNSNews.com) – As President Trump warned Sunday of a “big price to pay” for yet another suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, Russia declared that any foreign intervention could “lead to the most serious consequences.”
“It is necessary to warn once again that military intervention under far-fetched and fabricated pretexts in Syria, where Russian servicemen are located at the request of the legitimate government, is absolutely unacceptable and can lead to the most serious consequences,” the foreign ministry in Moscow said in a statement.
The U.S. Defense Department tweeted Monday morning: "At this time, the #DoD is not conducting air strikes in #Syria. However, we continue to closely watch the situation and support the ongoing diplomatic efforts to hold those who use chemical weapons, in Syria and otherwise, accountable."
Russia, meanwhile, is blaming Israel for an overnight attack on a Syrian air base.
Scores of people were killed in the weekend attack in Douma, the last important rebel-held area in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta. The Syrian American Medical Society reported symptoms associated with exposure to toxic chemicals, including foaming at the mouth, corneal burns and respiratory distress.
The U.S. and seven other members of the U.N. Security Council called for an emergency meeting on Monday in response to attack.
“Reports from a number of contacts and medical personnel on the ground indicate a potentially high number of casualties, including among families hiding in shelters,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert. “These reports, if confirmed, are horrifying and demand an immediate response by the international community.”
The crisis comes as Trump’s new national security advisor, John Bolton, takes up his post at the White House, beginning Monday. Bolton, viewed by detractors as a hard-line hawk and by supporters as a clear-eyed realist, has spoken in the past in favor of military strikes against Syria and other regimes hostile to the U.S., including Iran and North Korea.
On his Twitter feed, Trump said “many” people, including women and children, had been killed in a “mindless” chemical attack. Notably, he accused Russian President Vladimir Putin, by name, of backing “Animal Assad.”
“Big price to pay,” he added, without elaborating.
As before, Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Russian and Iranian allies immediately rejected claims that the regime was responsible.
The foreign ministry in Damascus called the allegations “a pretext to prolong the presence of terrorists in Douma,” while its Russian counterpart called them a provocation designed to “protect terrorists and justify potential attacks on Syria from foreign sides.”
Both attributed the claims to groups including the White Helmets – a volunteer rescue group working in rebel-held areas of Syria – which they accuse of colluding with terrorists.
The latest attack occurred a year to the day after Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airbase, which U.S. intelligence had linked to a deadly sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhun in Idlib province two days earlier.
The firing of Tomahawk missiles from U.S. Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean was the first U.S. military response to a chemical weapons attack in Syria.
More than four years earlier, President Obama had laid down a “red line” on chemical weapons use in Syria, but then in Aug. 2013 allowed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to cross it – with a sarin gas attack in Ghouta that cost more than 1,400 lives – without consequences.
After signaling plans at the time for punitive airstrikes, the Obama administration instead agreed to a Russia-brokered deal that saw Assad surrender all declared chemical weapons stocks.
‘Drumbeat of nonsensical claims’
The Trump administration and Western allies have repeatedly accused Russia of failing in its role of guarantor for ensuring Damascus complies with that agreement.
“Russia, with its unwavering support for the regime, ultimately bears responsibility for these brutal attacks, targeting of countless civilians, and the suffocation of Syria’s most vulnerable communities with chemical weapons,” Nauert said in Sunday’s statement.
“By shielding its ally Syria, Russia has breached its commitments to the United Nations as a framework guarantor,” she said. “Russia’s protection of the Assad regime and failure to stop the use of chemical weapons in Syria calls into question its commitment to resolving the overall crisis and to larger non-proliferation priorities.”
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson – whose government is embroiled in an unrelated dispute with Moscow over the alleged nerve gas poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain – also raised concerns about Russia’s role in chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
“Despite Russia’s promise in 2013 to ensure Syria would abandon all of its chemical weapons, international investigators mandated by the U.N. Security Council have found the Assad regime responsible for using poison gas in at least four separate attacks since 2014,” he said.
Johnson called for an urgent investigation into the latest reports, and said that those responsible “must be held to account.”
Assad and his allies typically blame the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict on rebel groups or suggest “false flag” operations designed to attract and justify outside military intervention.
The State Department has little patience for the denials that follow each instance of chemical weapons use in Syria.
In a separate weekend statement marking the first anniversary of the Khan Sheikhun sarin attack, Nauert accused the Assad regime of blatantly violating the Chemical Weapons Convention, adding that “no drumbeat of nonsensical claims by either the regime or its protectors can hide this truth.”