War Watch, Day 3: Lots Of Tweets, But No Missiles, Flying Over Syria

Jeff Schogol Avatar

More than 48 hours since President Trump signaled imminent military action in response to a reported Syrian chemical weapons attack, any element of “surprise” has long been lost.

The Russians are reportedly taking advantage of the lull to order 11 of their warships that had been at port in Syria to get underway – and out of the line of fire. Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad’s regime is presumably also making good use of the down time to hide anything it doesn’t want blown up.

To recap: The president publicly suggested that the U.S. military would launch some sort of retaliatory strike when he talked to reporters ahead of his April 9 cabinet meeting.

“We are meeting with our military and everybody else, and we’ll be making some major decisions over the next 24 to 48 hours,” Trump said at the time. “We are very concerned when a thing like that can happen. This is about humanity. We’re talking about humanity. And it can’t be allowed to happen.”

Trump’s announcement put the media into anticipation overdrive as some kind of action seemed imminent, but so far the only shots fired have been on Twitter. The latest exchange came Wednesday morning, when the president responded to boasts by Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon that U.S. missiles aimed at Syria would never get past Russian air defenses.

“Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria,” Trump tweeted. “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!”

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded to the verbal jousting on Wednesday by saying: “’Smart’ missiles must strike terrorists, not the legitimate government that has been fighting international terrorism on its territory for several years.”

As U.S. and Russian officials trade schoolyard comebacks, reliable information is becoming harder to come by. Earlier in the week, a Turkish Twitter troll spread a rumor that the guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook was in Syrian waters, armed with 60 Tomahawks; CNN Turk picked up the story. The same Twitter troll claimed on April 10 that the U.S. Air Force had scrambled B-52s at Diego Garcia; it had not.

When Task & Purpose asked the Pentagon whether it would be considered an act of war if the Russians shot down any U.S. Tomahawk missiles fired at Syria, a spokesman responded: “We are not going to get into hypothetical responses to hypothetical events.”

Pentagon reporters are getting the same response to virtually all their Syria questions — though, in fairness to the military, one DoD source told Task & Purpose, recent media queries have come in three opsec-unfriendly flavors:

  1. Which ships, aircraft, missiles and troops will be used against Syria?
  2. Where are they now?
  3. When will they be used?

When — or if — the United States does take action against Syria, the message will be heard loud and clear in Damascus: Using chemical weapons to kill innocent people triggers a righteous U.S. military response. No rush, though.