Russian President Vladimir Putin has condemned American air strikes on Syria in response to an apparent chemical attack.
Putin described President Donald Trump’s decision as an act of “aggression against a sovereign state” and suspended an agreement with the US to avoid hostile incidents in the skies above its Syrian ally.
The sudden escalation between the two nuclear-armed powers catapulted tensions to the highest level since Donald Trump took office in January.
The Kremlin said the US action will cause “considerable damage” to ties between Moscow and Washington. The U.S. said it had worked to minimize the risk of causing Russian casualties in the attack, which killed at least six Syrian servicemen.
The Shayrat Airfield was hit early Friday morning by 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from the USS Porter and USS Ross, two Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea, in what the U.S. said was a limited strike against the airbase from which the suspected chemical attack was launched.
Trump’s military move, which he said was a necessary response to an “affront to humanity” after more than 70 people died in a poison gas attack in northwest Syria on Tuesday, puts the US and Russia into a potentially dangerous stand-off as Moscow stands behind Assad after six years of civil war.
“It crossed a lot of lines for me,” Mr Trump said at a joint White House news conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Wednesday.
“When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, little babies … that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line, many, many lines. I will tell you, it’s already happened, that my attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much … You’re now talking about a whole different level.”
Russia suspended a cooperation pact with the US aimed at avoiding incidents between the two countries’ planes in the crowded airspace over Syria by establishing direct hotlines between their militaries.
“This is very risky,” Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, said.
“This agreement helped to avoid direct military confrontation in this difficult situation. We don’t want to start World War III.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he hoped that what he described as “provocations” wouldn’t lead to “irreversible results”. Drawing a parallel to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, he accused the US and its allies of seeking to sabotage Russian efforts to secure a peace deal in Syria and achieve regime change by the use of force in televised comments from Tashkent.
Until recently, Syria had seemed the one area where Putin and Trump were certain to find common ground. During his election campaign Trump had pledged to cooperate with Russia in fighting terrorism and top officials have made it clear the US no longer seeks regime change in Syria.
Syria denied using poison gas and Russia’s defense ministry has blamed the rebels, saying a Syrian air strike hit a chemical stockpile controlled by the armed opposition. The Kremlin said Friday that the Syrian government doesn’t have any chemical weapons stored.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is expected to meet Putin on his first visit to Moscow next week, blasted Moscow’s support for Assad, saying “either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been incompetent in its ability to deliver” on a 2013 deal in which it guaranteed that Syria gave up its chemical weapons.
Russian state television reported from the airbase Friday, saying the attack had not damaged the runway but had destroyed nine planes.
Russian forces so far have not been placed at risk by the US actions, said Frants Klintsevich, the deputy head of the defense and security committee in the upper house of parliament.
“But if we see a threat to our bases or our servicemen, we of course will put the airspace in order,” he said by phone. Russia has its most advanced S-400 air-defense systems in Syria to protect its bases, which include a naval facility and an airbase.
Ruslan Pukhov, the head of the Center of Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, said the air strikes were a message to Putin and a “symbolic gesture of superpower”.
The bombing represents President Donald Trump’s most dramatic military order since taking office.
The Obama administration threatened attacking Assad’s forces for previous chemical weapons attacks, but never followed through.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would not go into detail about the matter during his regular spot on radio 3AW Melbourne on Friday, but said: “We have been in close touch with our American allies.”
He noted Australia was already involved in coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Syria.
“It is horrifying we condemn it utterly. This is a war crime of the worst sort, its inhuman, and it has been universally condemned,” he said
“It cries out for a strong response.”
Mr Turnbull said “there doesn’t appear to be any doubt” that Syrian government forces were behind the gas attack.