RUSSIA has risked increasing tensions with the US after launching naval drills near Syria in a confident muscle-flexing response to what it calls a “US military build-up” in the Mediterranean Sea.
Moscow has sent its largest ever naval contingent, including the Russian North Fleet’s Slava-class cruiser Marshal Ustinov and Udaloy-class anti-submarine destroyer Severomorsk, as it prepares for renewed US strikes against the Syrian government.
US National Security Advisor John Bolton last week asserted the Syrian military may be preparing for another chemical attack ahead of an operation to reclaim the province of Idlib.
He warned of a “strong response” from the US, but added he had discussed the issue with Russian officials in direct talks.
State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said on Tuesday: “Any Russian and/or Syrian regime offence on Idlib and any kind of escalation in that area, we would hold them responsible and we would hold them accountable for that, most especially, for the use of chemical weapons.
“The United States has taken a very strong stance in the past when chemical weapons have been used. You all know that very well.”
She added: “We have engaged the Russian Government and also the military at the most senior level.”
However, the Russian Defence Ministry and Foreign Ministry have alleged in recent days that the US and its allies are conspiring with militants opposed to the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stage a “false flag” chemical weapon attack to act as a pretext for a new round of strikes against the regime.
According to Radio Free Europe, Russian UN envoy Vasily Nebenzya told his counterpart from the UK, which Russia has accused of supplying Syrian jihadis with chemical weapons: “We also want to warn you that we are absolutely aware of your unsavoury plans.”
The UK has denied Russia’s accusation of supplying chemical weapons.
A Pentagon spokesman said the reports of a US military build-up in the Eastern Mediterranean was “false” but said: “We are prepared to respond should the President direct such an action.”
They added: “We remain concerned over reports of a potential military offensive by the Syrian regime against civilians and civilian infrastructure in Idlib, which would result in devastating humanitarian consequences.”
President Donald Trump has previously ordered strikes against the Syrian government on two occasions in response to targeted chemical weapon attacks.
The US and allies, including the UK, accused the Syrian regime of using internationally restricted poison gas in operations that have killed opposition fighters, as well as civilians.
However, Assad and his Russian allies have denied the allegations.
Meanwhile, the US and Russia are both involved in the battle against Islamic State, but whilst Russia backs Assad, the US backs the Syrian Democratic Forces.