The news has sparked fears of all-out war between Damascus and Washington, fuelled by the bellicose actions of Putin’s Moscow as he moves to flex his military muscles in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the region.
Amid rapidly escalating tensions between the US and Moscow in Syria, Russian newspaper Izvestiya reported on Tuesday Russia had sent an unprecedented fleet of 10 ships, mostly armed with Kalibr cruise missiles, and two submarines to the eastern Mediterranean — with more naval enforcements on the way — in response to apparent increased US military presence in the area.
But the Pentagon has dismissed the claims of a military buildup as “propaganda” after President Donald Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton US warned the US would respond “very strongly” if Assad used chemical weapons to retake the Idlib province.
Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon told new website Task & Purpose: “Russian reports of a US military buildup in the eastern Mediterranean are nothing more than propaganda.
“It’s not true. That does not mean, however, that we are unprepared to respond should the president direct such an action.”
Russia’s Kommersant publication further reported Moscow had mobilised two Tor-M2 surface-to-air missile defence systems in Syria and the country’s air defences had been placed on high alert in anticipation of a potential US assault, which the Russian Defence Ministry has said would come after a “false flag” chemical weapons attack staged by West-backed militants.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on reports Mr Bolton had reiterated his warning about a “strong response” from Washington in talks with Russian officials on Thursday.
The Pentagon expressed its “concern at the potential for further – and illegal – use of chemical weapons” in Idlib.
Speaking at a news conference in Jerusalem last week, Mr Bolton said: “We are obviously concerned about the possibility that Assad may use chemical weapons again.
“Just so there’s no confusion here: if the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons, we will respond very strongly, and they really ought to think about this a long time.”
Mr Trump responded with the full force of the US military after chemical attacks were reported in Syria.
In April 2017, Trump, along with France and the UK, launched combined missile strikes on Syrian targets.
A total of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were deployed from the Mediterranean Sea into Syria.
In Jerusalem last week, Mr Bolton argued the US ought to use “leverage” over Russia, one of President Assad’s two key backers, to force it to oust Iranian troops.
The Russian Defence Ministry’s Russian Centre for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides in Syria had warned on Saturday: “Western countries are increasing the grouping of carriers of cruise missiles in the Middle East.”
It added: “The destroyer USS The Sullivans of the US Navy arrived in the Persian Gulf with 56 cruise missiles on board.
“And at the Al-Udeid Air Bases in Qatar, the strategic bomber B-1B of the US Air Force was redeployed with 24 cruise JASSM air-to-surface missiles.”
The ministry stated: “The West is ready once again to support terrorists and, in violation of all norms of international law, to commit an act of aggression against a sovereign state, which will inevitably cause another sharp deterioration of the situation in the Middle East region and a breakdown in the process of a peaceful settlement of the Syrian conflict.”
Adding his views on the ongoing tensions, Daniel Davis, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and senior fellow at think tank Defence Priorities, told Newsweek on Monday: “There is absolutely nothing of value in Syria that warrants even the potential for a military clash between Washington and Moscow.
“We gain nothing by keeping troops in Syria—at all—and it would be in our national interests to withdraw them immediately.”