WASHINGTON (Circa) — Days after announcing his administration would soon decide how to respond to the April 7 chemical weapons attack in Syria, President Donald Trump tweeted a warning suggesting another U.S. missile strike against Syria is imminent.
Trump's very public threat of military action led some to criticize the president, arguing he should stop talking and take decisive action to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad. Others have raised concerns that the changing dynamic on the ground, makes a limited U.S. military strike impossible and a broader U.S. role in the conflict, involving not only Syria, but Russia and Iran, inevitable.
Early Wednesday morning, Trump sent a message to Syria's chief ally, Russia. Responding to reports from top Russian military officials and diplomats who threatened to block a U.S. missile strike on Syria, Trump tweeted, "Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and 'smart!'"
Trump further warned, "You shouldn't be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!"
Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 11, 2018
The tweet was not the response some of the president's allies were expecting. In April 2017, Trump ordered the deployment of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles to crater a Syrian airbase less than 72 hours after Assad was implicated in a gas attack.
"He needs to follow up," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. told reporters Wednesday. Graham took to social media earlier in the day to encourage Trump to "deliver on his threats" and take specific actions to decapitate the Assad regime.
The president's actions, Graham said, "should include destruction of air power and intelligence operations, and making Assad a target."
Will Assad pay a big price?— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) April 11, 2018
President Trump must deliver on his threats and big price should include destruction of air power and intelligence operations, and making Assad a target.
When it comes to Assad’s #Syria, it’s now time to cut off the head of the snake.
Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said rather than tweeting a warning, Trump "should have already done it."
Trump's April 2017 Syria strike was effective because it established clear principles and consequences for the use of chemical weapons, Inhofe explained. "When you have the principle and the policy, we need to go ahead and back it up. Otherwise, next time it's not going to work and they'll say, well, it's another mushy president."
At a diplomatic event on Wednesday, Defense Secretary James Mattis affirmed, "We stand ready to provide military options if they are appropriate, as the president determined."
In the meantime, Mattis said the United States and its allies are "still assessing the intelligence" to determine whether Assad is responsible for the latest chemical weapons attack in the rebel-held town of Douma. Both Russia and Syria deny Assad is to blame, claiming terrorists carried out the gas attack left at least 40 civilians dead and more than 1,000 injured.
Militarily, the United States currently has the capability to launch a cruise missile strike similar to the one carried out in 2017 from warships in the eastern Mediterranean. In the coming weeks, the U.S. force posture in the region will be even stronger as the USS Harry S Truman Carrier Strike Group is deployed to the region along with four guided-missile destroyers.
At the same time, satellite imagery captured Wednesday appears to show Russian warships leaving the Syrian port of Tartus, a deployment that clearly coincides with President Trump's threat of military action against Syria.
ISI reveals: Disappearance of most of the #Russian #Naval Forces from #Tartus Port, #Syria.— imagesatintl (@imagesatint) April 11, 2018
Those missing naval vessels have now been deployed at sea due to possible near-future #strikes. Only one #kilo class submarine remained.#russiannavy #Syriastrikes #foxnews #kilo pic.twitter.com/guRA9w0qqt
These naval maneuvers are consistent with recent warnings from Moscow, including the threat to "shoot down" U.S. missiles, as Trump referred to in his tweet and a recent pledge by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to use the Russian army to back the regime in Damascus.
Russia's top military officer, Gen. Valery Gerasimov stated last month that any military action taken by the United States in Syria that threatened the lives of Russian officers would result in "retaliatory measures both over the missiles and carriers that will use them."
On Tuesday, a Russian diplomat in Lebanon repeated the general's warning telling Hezbollah's al-Manar TV, "If there is a strike by the Americans then...the missiles will be downed and even the sources from which the missile were fired."
There is some credibility to the threat. In recent years, Russia deployed a sophisticated S-400 air-defense system in Syria, which may have successfully intercepted five of eight missiles fired at a Syrian airbase earlier this week.
According to Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, the more forcefully Moscow backs the Assad regime against the United States, the less likely it is Trump will be able to carry out a limited military strike, like the one last year.
"The more the Russians rally around the Assad regime, the more it becomes impossible for the United States to have a limited military engagement in Syria," stated. "We are now in escalation dynamic in Syria that can have very significant consequences," he continued, particularly as Trump issues direct warnings to Moscow.
Moreover, if Moscow is able to make good on its threat to intercept U.S. missiles, that will raise the stakes even higher. Berman explained that if U.S. cruise missiles are "neutralized" by the Russian-Syrian air defense, "it creates the imperative to actually go bigger and take more decisive actions to penetrate Russian defense."
U.S. allies are also reportedly considering taking part in a broader military effort against the Assad regime. In recent days, President Trump has spoken with British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emanuel Macron. Both leaders said they will respond to the Assad regime in order to uphold international laws prohibiting the use of chemical weapons.
"We have had regular contact with Israel, Saudi Arabia, France and the U.K., as well as a number of other countries," @PressSec says about @POTUS talking to other world leaders about forming a possible coalition to address Syria. https://t.co/Pz3PNmDhGV pic.twitter.com/U0d80dkfMP— CBS News (@CBSNews) April 11, 2018
The U.S., French and British alliance forming against Syria hit a raw nerve for Russia. The three countries recently led an international effort to expel more than 140 Russian diplomats from embassies around the world and targeted the Kremlin with new economic sanctions in response to Moscow's alleged use of a nerve agent to poison a former Russian spy living in the U.K.
Outside of the European coalition, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said Tuesday the Kingdom "will be present" to support allies taking action against Syria.
A direct Saudi role in military action against the Assad regime would further aggravate tensions between the Kingdom and its chief regional rival Iran, which has been supporting Assad in exchange for an increasingly strong foothold in Syria. President Trump has also taken a hard-line on Iran, appointing Iran hawk John Bolton to be his national security adviser, while threatening to scrap the nuclear deal, reimpose sanctions.
On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers are growing anxious at the possibility of a broader military engagement against Assad in Syria.
"This is a serious issue," Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said Wednesday. "The president needs to consider all options, including whether there is the use of a military option. But it's got to be done in conjunction with Congress."
The senator argued there is no justification and no authorization from Congress for Trump to get involved directly in the Syrian civil war. In the past, Cardin has worked with Republican and Democratic colleagues on the Foreign Relations Committee on legislation to assert Congress' power to declare war.
Later this week, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., will be releasing the text of a new authorization for the use of military force that will be debated in committee. It is not clear whether it will be limited to the use of force against terrorist groups, or if Congress will consider an authorization for U.S. military action in Syria.