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As fears mount over open U.S.-Russia conflict, Moscow seeks to lower the temperature


Russian officials on Thursday sought to tamp down public fears of a looming conflict with the United States, even as Syrian government forces took control of the town where they are suspected of carrying out a chemical attack last weekend.

Russian military police also entered Douma Thursday to act as “guarantors of law and order in the town,” the Russian Defense Ministry said, according to Russian news agencies. Russian troops had arrived earlier on Monday under the terms of a surrender deal reached with the rebels after the suspected chemical attack — which Russia and Syria say did not happen.

The recapture of Douma, in the region of Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus, effectively represents the end of the war between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the rebel groups opposing his rule. Although chunks of the country remain under opposition control, none are as symbolic as Eastern Ghouta.

But the situation in Syria remained in flux ahead of an anticipated airstrike by the United States, which President Trump has signaled he plans to carry out in response to the suspected use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces.

“Russia is closely watching the declarations that are coming from Washington,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday. “We continue to believe that it is extremely important to avoid any steps that may lead to an increase of tensions in Syria.”

Even after international inspections and a U.S. air strike in 2017, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is being accused of using chemical weapons to attack civilians in Douma, Syria, on April 7. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Russian officials in recent days had warned of the possibility of a direct military confrontation with the United States as a result of a U.S. strike. Any missile attack that puts Russian lives at risk, Moscow has said, would result in Russia striking back at the missiles and at the planes or ships that launched them.

Russia has deployed air defense systems in Syria, including its sophisticated S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile system. The fact that thousands of Russian troops and military advisers are stationed across the country means that there’s a chance that a large-scale U.S. strike on Syrian government forces would — deliberately or not — also kill Russians, military analysts in Moscow say.

In the wake of Trump’s Wednesday tweet warning Russia of a planned U.S. missile strike, however, Moscow appears to be trying to make clear it does not want a war and that a limited attack that doesn’t risk Russian lives would not precipitate a military response.

“I rule out a scenario in which the United States will intentionally strike a facility in Syria where Russian servicemen are located,” Military Sciences Academy vice president Sergei Modestov said in Thursday’s edition of the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

The Kommersant newspaper quoted anonymous Defense Ministry sources as saying that Russia’s General Staff was in touch with the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and expected to receive coordinates on airstrike targets from the Pentagon in order to avoid Russian casualties.

“Right now, the talk is about the necessity of de-escalation,” said Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst in Moscow. “We’ve practically come to the brink of war.”

For his part, Trump also appeared to step back from the brink with a tweet early on Thursday saying he did not mean to suggest missile strikes were imminent.

“Never said when an attack on Syria would take place,” he tweeted. “Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”

On the ground, fighters from the hard line Jaish al-Islam group have trickled out of Douma in recent days under the terms of a deal that followed Saturday’s suspected chemical attack. Local residents said Wednesday that the militants had insisted on emptying their magazines into the air instead of handing them to the Syrian military, and wounded civilians in the process.

But by Thursday morning, a monitoring group reported that they had surrendered their weapons altogether. Russia says more than 13,000 militants and their families have left Douma since April 1.

The World Health Organization has said that during the shelling of Douma on Saturday, around 500 patients exhibited “signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals.”

A network of local flight monitors said they had tracked several helicopters heading southwest from a government air base on Saturday evening. The same models of aircraft were then seen circling over Douma at 7:26 p.m. and 7:38 p.m.

Reports of a suspected gas attack began circulating minutes later. In one apartment block, rescue workers would later find rooms filled with tangled bodies and the stench of chlorine. Some people had died foaming at the mouth, according to video footage.

Russia, however, says that its specialists that have visited Douma have found no evidence of a chemical attack in the town. Instead, Saturday’s incident represented the latest example of rebel trying to stage such an attack in order to undermine the Assad regime, Lt. Gen. Viktor Poznikhir, deputy chief of operations of the Russian General Staff, said Wednesday.

Rebel supporters on Saturday “once again tried to imitate in front of video cameras a staged chemical attack on civilians in the town of Douma,” Poznikhir said.

Loveluck reported from Istanbul. Asma Ajroudi contributed reporting from Beirut.

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Russian troops had arrived earlier on Monday under the terms of a surrender deal reached with the rebels after the suspected chemical attack — which Russia and Syria say did not happen.</p> <p>The recapture of Douma, in the region of Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus, effectively represents the end of the war between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the rebel groups opposing his rule. Although chunks of the country remain under opposition control, none are as symbolic as Eastern Ghouta.</p> <p>But the situation in Syria remained in flux ahead of an anticipated airstrike by the United States, which President Trump has signaled he plans to carry out in response to the suspected use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces.</p> <p>“Russia is closely watching the declarations that are coming from Washington,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday. “We continue to believe that it is extremely important to avoid any steps that may lead to an increase of tensions in Syria.”</p><div class=”inline-content inline-video”> <div class=”posttv-video-embed powa” data-ad-bar=”1″ data-aspect-ratio=”0.5625″ data-blurb=”1″ data-live=”0″ data-object-id=”5accce88e4b0c391dac92dd9″ data-org=”wapo” data-playthrough=”1″ data-uuid=”1cb11fdc-3cce-11e8-955b-7d2e19b79966″ data-youtube-id=””> <script async=”” src=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/player/prod/PoWaLoaderWapo.js?_=20180409A” type=”text/javascript”></script> </div> <div class=”inline-video-caption”> <span class=”pb-caption”>Even after international inspections and a U.S. air strike in 2017, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is being accused of using chemical weapons to attack civilians in Douma, Syria, on April 7. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)</span> </div> </div> <p>Russian officials in recent days had warned of the possibility of a direct military confrontation with the United States as a result of a U.S. strike. Any missile attack that puts Russian lives at risk, Moscow has said, would result in Russia striking back at the missiles and at the planes or ships that launched them.</p> <p channel=”wp.com” class=”interstitial-link”> <i>[<a href=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/broad-attack-on-syria-would-face-risk-from-air-defenses-escalation-with-russia/2018/04/11/f14e9a96-3db2-11e8-974f-aacd97698cef_story.html?utm_term=.ce5168fa03cc” shape=”rect” title=”www.washingtonpost.com”>Attack on Syria would face risk from air defenses, escalation with Russia</a>]</i> </p> <p>Russia has deployed air defense systems in Syria, including its sophisticated S-400 <a href=”http://www.janes.com/article/74500/second-russian-s-400-in-syria-confirmed” shape=”rect” title=”www.janes.com”>long-range surface-to-air missile system</a>. The fact that thousands of Russian troops and military advisers are stationed across the country means that there’s a chance that a large-scale U.S. strike on Syrian government forces would — deliberately or not — also kill Russians, military analysts in Moscow say.</p> <p>In the wake of Trump’s Wednesday tweet warning Russia of a planned U.S. missile strike, however, Moscow appears to be trying to make clear it does not want a war and that a limited attack that doesn’t risk Russian lives would not precipitate a military response.</p> <p>“I rule out a scenario in which the United States will intentionally strike a facility in Syria where Russian servicemen are located,” Military Sciences Academy vice president Sergei Modestov said in Thursday’s edition of the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta.</p> <p>The Kommersant newspaper quoted anonymous Defense Ministry sources as saying that Russia’s General Staff was in touch with the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and expected to receive coordinates on airstrike targets from the Pentagon in order to avoid Russian casualties.</p> <p>“Right now, the talk is about the necessity of de-escalation,” said Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst in Moscow. “We’ve practically come to the brink of war.”</p><div></div> <p>For his part, Trump also appeared to step back from the brink with a tweet early on Thursday saying he did not mean to suggest missile strikes were imminent.</p> <p>“Never said when an attack on Syria would take place,” he tweeted. “Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”</p> <p>On the ground, fighters from the hard line Jaish al-Islam group have trickled out of Douma in recent days under the terms of a deal that followed Saturday’s suspected chemical attack. Local residents said Wednesday that the militants had insisted on emptying their magazines into the air instead of handing them to the Syrian military, and wounded civilians in the process.</p> <p>But by Thursday morning, a monitoring group reported that they had surrendered their weapons altogether. Russia says more than 13,000 militants and their families have left Douma since April 1.</p> <p channel=”wp.com” class=”interstitial-link”> <i>[<a href=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-says-missiles-will-be-coming-to-syria-taunts-russia-for-vowing-to-block-them/2018/04/11/7dc52fa0-3d7a-11e8-8d53-eba0ed2371cc_story.html?utm_term=.b94857660222″ shape=”rect” title=”www.washingtonpost.com”>Trump: missiles ‘coming’ to Syria, taunts Russia for vowing to block them</a>]</i> </p> <p>The World Health Organization has said that during the shelling of Douma on Saturday, around 500 patients exhibited “signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals.”</p> <p>A network of local flight monitors said they had tracked several helicopters heading southwest from a government air base on Saturday evening. The same models of aircraft were then seen circling over Douma at 7:26 p.m. and 7:38 p.m.</p> <p>Reports of a suspected gas attack began circulating minutes later. In one apartment block, rescue workers would later find rooms filled with tangled bodies and the stench of chlorine. Some people had died foaming at the mouth, according to video footage.</p> <p>Russia, however, says that its specialists that have visited Douma have found no evidence of a chemical attack in the town. Instead, Saturday’s incident represented the latest example of rebel trying to stage such an attack in order to undermine the Assad regime, Lt. Gen. Viktor Poznikhir, deputy chief of operations of the Russian General Staff, said Wednesday.</p> <p>Rebel supporters on Saturday “once again tried to imitate in front of video cameras a staged chemical attack on civilians in the town of Douma,” Poznikhir said.</p> <p><strong></strong></p> <p class=”trailer”> <p>Loveluck reported from Istanbul. Asma Ajroudi contributed reporting from Beirut.</p> </p> <p><strong></strong></p> <p channel=”wp.com” class=”interstitial-link”> <b>Read more:</b> </p> <p channel=”wp.com” class=”interstitial-link”> <a href=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/strike-on-assad-for-use-of-chemical-agents-unlikely-to-advance-wider-us-goals-in-syria/2018/04/10/0c5fe3f8-3c0a-11e8-974f-aacd97698cef_story.html?utm_term=.fb610b6514b4″ shape=”rect” title=”www.washingtonpost.com”>Strike on Assad for chemical agents unlikely to advance wider U.S. goals in Syria</a> </p> <p channel=”wp.com” class=”interstitial-link”> <a href=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2018/04/11/we-do-not-participate-in-twitter-diplomacy-russia-responds-to-trump/?utm_term=.735f96ffc143″ shape=”rect” title=”www.washingtonpost.com”>‘We do not participate in Twitter diplomacy’: Russia responds to Trump</a> </p> <p channel=”wp.com” class=”interstitial-link”> <a href=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/russia-backers-warn-of-threat-of-war-with-us-as-syria-tensions-rise/2018/04/10/3a5fb4ec-3cbc-11e8-912d-16c9e9b37800_story.html?utm_term=.dc431504a2e8″ shape=”rect” title=”www.washingtonpost.com”>Kremlin backers warn of threat of war with U.S. as Syria tensions rise</a> </p> <p channel=”wp.com” class=”interstitial-link”> <a href=”http://www.washingtonpost.com/world”>Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world</a> </p> <p channel=”wp.com” class=”interstitial-link”> <a href=”https://www.facebook.com/washingtonpostworld/”>Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news</a> </p> </article>, last_modified=1523531978, slug=russiasyria, site_service_lookup=/world/middle_east, created_date_num=1523527163, thumbnail={aspect_ratio=1.4124293785310735, featured={aspect_ratio=1.4124293785310735, credit_line=Omar Sanadiki / Reuters, credit_organization=Reuters, raw_caption=FILE PHOTO: Syrian rebels and their families leave in a bus from the Wafideen camp on the edge of Douma, April 9, 2018. 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He previously spent nine years at the Wall Street Journal, starting with beats covering commercial real estate and telecommunications in New York. He was based in Berlin from 2013 to 2017 and covered two German elections, two Olympic Games, the Ukraine crisis, migration and populist politics in Europe. Troianovski began his career as a stringer for the Webster-Kirkwood Times in Missouri and the Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He was born in Moscow and grew up in Heidelberg, Germany, and in St. Louis. 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She was previously the Daily Telegraph’s Cairo correspondent. 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He previously spent nine years at the Wall Street Journal, most recently as Berlin correspondent., affiliations=, linkedin=https://www.linkedin.com/in/anton-troianovski-487ba5b/, expertise=Moscow bureau chief covering Russia, twitter=@antontroian, contributor=false, bio_page=https://www.washingtonpost.com/people/anton-troianovski/, byline=Anton Troianovski, email=anton.troianovski@washpost.com, slug=anton-troianovski, image=https://s3.amazonaws.com/arc-authors/washpost/c08c3927-49da-48b7-98f4-7b0b446303a5.png, last_updated=2018-03-13T12:35:05.568Z, longBio=Anton Troianovski is the Moscow bureau chief of The Washington Post. He previously spent nine years at the Wall Street Journal, starting with beats covering commercial real estate and telecommunications in New York. He was based in Berlin from 2013 to 2017 and covered two German elections, two Olympic Games, the Ukraine crisis, migration and populist politics in Europe. 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Loveluck was The Post’s 2016 Laurence Stern Fellow., instagram=leloveluck, expertise=Reporter in The Post’s Beirut bureau, focusing on Syria, firstName=Louisa, twitter=@leloveluck, podcasts=[], books=[], awards=[], name=Louisa Loveluck, location=Beirut, _id=loveluckl0-v, in_byline=true, bio_page=https://www.washingtonpost.com/people/louisa-loveluck/, byline=Louisa Loveluck, item_role=By, email=louisa.loveluck@washpost.com, slug=louisa-loveluck}], publishing_status={name=Live, slug=live}, decoded_headline=As fears mount over open U.S.-Russia conflict, Moscow seeks to lower the temperature, web_type=article_story, content_origin=methode, loid=null, uri=/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2018/04/12/Foreign/Stories/russiasyria.xml, url=http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/russia-seeks-to-allay-fears-of-open-conflict-with-the-us-over-syria/2018/04/12/2d2407c4-3e38-11e8-8d53-eba0ed2371cc_story.html, primary_slot_html=<div class=”inline-content inline-photo inline-photo-normal”> <a name=”a4db433159bb772609d65e0249cb42659e7301f9″></a> <img class=”unprocessed placeholder” src=”https://img.washingtonpost.com/rf/image_60w/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2018/04/12/Foreign/Images/2018-04-10T095220Z_594871972_RC1E4BA9D470_RTRMADP_3_MIDEAST-CRISIS-SYRIA-GHOUTA-5503.jpg?uuid=ju3-SD48EeiNU-ug7SNxzA” data-hi-res-src=”https://img.washingtonpost.com/rf/image_1484w/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2018/04/12/Foreign/Images/2018-04-10T095220Z_594871972_RC1E4BA9D470_RTRMADP_3_MIDEAST-CRISIS-SYRIA-GHOUTA-5503.jpg?uuid=ju3-SD48EeiNU-ug7SNxzA” data-low-res-src=”https://img.washingtonpost.com/rf/image_480w/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2018/04/12/Foreign/Images/2018-04-10T095220Z_594871972_RC1E4BA9D470_RTRMADP_3_MIDEAST-CRISIS-SYRIA-GHOUTA-5503.jpg?uuid=ju3-SD48EeiNU-ug7SNxzA” data-raw-src=”https://img.washingtonpost.com/rw/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2018/04/12/Foreign/Images/2018-04-10T095220Z_594871972_RC1E4BA9D470_RTRMADP_3_MIDEAST-CRISIS-SYRIA-GHOUTA-5503.jpg?uuid=ju3-SD48EeiNU-ug7SNxzA” ><br/> <span class=”pb-caption”> Syrian rebels and their families leave in a bus from the Wafideen camp on the edge of Douma, April 9, 2018. (Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)</span> </div>, secondary_slot_as_full_width_html=<div class=”inline-content inline-video”> <div class=”posttv-video-embed powa” data-org=”wapo” data-uuid=”1cb11fdc-3cce-11e8-955b-7d2e19b79966″ data-ad-bar=”1″ data-playthrough=”1″ data-blurb=”1″ data-object-id=”5accce88e4b0c391dac92dd9″ data-youtube-id=”” data-live=”0″ data-aspect-ratio=”0.5625″> <script type=”text/javascript” src=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/player/prod/PoWaLoaderWapo.js?_=20180409A” async></script> </div> <div class=”inline-video-caption”> <span class=”pb-caption”>Even after international inspections and a U.S. air strike in 2017, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is being accused of using chemical weapons to attack civilians in Douma, Syria, on April 7. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)</span> </div> </div>, created_date=1523527163, publication_end=null, published_date=1523529086, commercial_node=/world, kicker={name=Middle East, url=/world/middle-east}}



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