Deadly S-400 anti-aircraft missile 'ring of steel' protects Assad: US fears network of Russian air defense that can shoot down 80 planes at once from 248 miles away and is 'one of the most feared weapons in the world'
- US President Donald Trump has warned Russia to 'get ready' for strikes on Syria in an extraordinary tweet
- Trump told Moscow 'You shouldn't be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it'
- US has maintained the threat of missile strikes in the wake of Saturday's horrific chemical attack in Douma
- Russia ambassador to Lebanon says US missiles fired at Syria would be shot down and launch sites targeted
- The S-400 has been described as one of the most formidable air defence systems in the world
- It is capable of shooting down fighter jets and missiles and has a 248 mile range
- Russia has claimed the chemical attack in Douma was staged by White Helmets rescue volunteers
Russia has vowed to shoot down any US missiles aimed at Syria using its lethal anti-aircraft system amid mounting tensions between Moscow and Washington.
Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's regime is protected by fearsome S-400 defence missiles in a 'ring of steel' around the country provided by the Kremlin.
The most advanced of Russia's terrifying S-400 systems is designed to destroy aircraft, cruise and ballistic missiles, including medium-range missiles, and can also be used against ground objectives, according to Russia.
The S-400 was first deployed to Syria in 2015, and with its 248 mile range it is capable of providing an air cover umbrella across the majority of Syria. It is capable of shooting down up to 80 targets simultaneously and is said to be able to travel more than 10,000mph.
Russia is also hoping to sell the system to Iran and Turkey, and a successful demonstration against American hardware would only help sell the $400m per unit system.
Ring of steel: The Syrian air defence system is understood to have been heavily damaged but Russia has a formidable S-400 system (pictured), which has been in place in Syria for more than a year
Firepower: The S-400 is capable of shooting down up to 80 targets simultaneously and is said to be able to travel more than 10,000mph; Russia is also hoping to sell the system to Iran and Turkey, and a successful demonstration against American hardware would only help sell the $400m per unit system
Russia initially deployed the S-400s to its base in Syria to deter Turkey when the two nations were on the verge of conflict after a Turkish jet downed a Russian bomber on the Syrian border in November 2015.
Sources say it is likely any attack by the US, Britain and France on Syria would be carried out from a safe enough distance to avoid planes being shot down.
The S-400 is also deployed widely in Russia. When it was deployed a Kremlin spokesman said: 'The main task of the anti-aircraft missile troops of the Russian Aerospace Forces is air defense and protecting vital state, military, industry and energy facilities, as well as the Armed Forces troops and transport communications, from aerospace attacks.
Fears about the S-400 are rising after Moscow's ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, this morning said any US rockets fired at Syria would be shot down and the launch sites targeted.
US President Donald Trump responded with an incendiary tweet warning that a strike on Syria was imminent and telling Moscow it 'shouldn't be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!'
He was referring to a horrifying poison gas attack blamed on Assad's forces that left 43 dead and hundreds of others injured in rebel-held Douma over the weekend.
Military might: Russia has demonstrated the power of its S-400 defence systems in videos showing rockets being fired off. The S-400 has been described as one of the most formidable air defence systems in the world today and is capable of shooting down fighter jets and missiles
Russia has claimed its own military experts have found no evidence of poisonous substances at the site of Assad's latest chemical attack - and insist the atrocity was faked by rescue volunteers.
The Kremlin's military said it had drawn the conclusion after taking samples from rebel-held Douma where 43 were killed by toxic gas on Saturday.
This afternoon, the Russian army accused the White Helmets civil defence organisation of staging the chemical outrage.
'Acting purely as a terrorist organisation, the odious "White Helmets" once again staged for the cameras a "chemical attack" on the civilians of Douma,' Lieutenant-General Viktor Poznikhir said at a briefing in Moscow.
He said doctors at a local hospital told Russian officers they had not treated any victims of purported attacks.
Earlier, the Kremlin's Foreign Ministry suggested the US plan to strike Syria could be a pretext to destroy evidence of an alleged chemical weapons attack, which Russia has said was a staged 'provocation' to justify Western intervention.
President Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning: 'Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. 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!'
In response to Trump's tweet, Russia's foreign ministry said 'smart missiles should fly towards terrorists, not legal government'.
The last few hours have seen a dramatic ratcheting of tensions in the Middle East where Russian forces are propping up dictator Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria and American forces are backing some of his opponents.
Britain, France and the US are continuing to discuss possible strikes to punish Assad for the chemical attack on Saturday, in which 43 were killed and others left gasping for air and foaming at the mouth.
The US military appeared to be in position to carry out any attack order this morning with a Navy destroyer - armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles - underway in the eastern Mediterranean.
Amid rising tensions today, Moscow's UN envoy Vasily Nebenzia had earlier pleaded with America not to strike and warned the US it will 'bear responsibility' for any 'illegal military adventure' it carries out. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov urged restraint this morning, saying countries should avoid taking action that could further destabilise the war-torn country.
This morning, the pan-European air traffic control agency Eurocontrol warned aircraft to be careful when flying close to Syria. It said that air-to-ground and/or cruise missiles could be used within the next three days and there was a possibility of intermittent disruption of radio navigation equipment.
'Due to the possible launch of air strikes into Syria with air-to-ground and/or cruise missiles within the next 72 hours, and the possibility of intermittent disruption of radio navigation equipment, due consideration needs to be taken when planning flight operations in the Eastern Mediterranean/Nicosia FIR area,' it said, referring to the designated airspace.
The US military appeared to be in position to carry out any attack order this morning with a Navy destroyer - armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles - underway in the eastern Mediterranean
Aviation regulators in countries including the US, UK, France and Germany have previously issued warnings against airlines entering Syrian airspace leading most carriers to avoid the area.
The only commercial flights above Syria as of 1:15 am GMT on Wednesday were being flown by Syrian Air and Lebanon's Middle East Airlines, according to flight tracking website FlightRadar24.
The Eurocontrol statement included a broader area outside the airspace controlled by Damascus.
The Nicosia flight information region named in the Eurocontrol statement on Tuesday covers the island of Cyprus and surrounding waters, according to a map on the agency's website. The same map did not designate any specific territory as being the 'Eastern Mediterranean' region.
Meanwhile, the US military appeared to be in position to carry out any attack order this morning with a Navy destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, getting underway in the eastern Mediterranean on Monday after completing a port call in Cyprus.
The guided missile destroyer is armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, the weapon of choice in a U.S. attack one year ago on an airfield in Syria following an alleged sarin gas attack on civilians.
Also, the Navy said the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier and its strike group will depart Norfolk, Virginia, on Wednesday for a regularly scheduled deployment to Europe.
The US military appeared to be in position to carry out any attack order this morning and the Navy said the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier and its strike group will depart Norfolk, Virginia, on Wednesday for a regularly scheduled deployment to Europe
The Navy said the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier (file picture) and its strike group will depart Norfolk, Virginia, on Wednesday for a regularly scheduled deployment to Europe
The strike group will be accompanied by a German frigate FGS Hessen, a state-of-the-art vessel specialising in air defense which officials say is the only type of warship in the Western world with three kinds of surface-to-air missiles.
Its radar has a detection range of more than 200 nautical miles for air targets.
In the face of intense world outrage, the United Nations Security Council failed to agree a global response to the chemical attack on Tuesday, after Washington and Moscow opposed each other's rival motions to set up an international investigation into poison gas use in the seven-year-old conflict.
President Trump has made it clear he plans to make the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, and perhaps his Russian and Iranian backers, pay for the latest alleged toxic gas atrocity in the war-wracked country.
But Russia has warned against action and this morning defence committee lawmaker Andrei Krasov said the Kremlin would treat a US airstrike on Syria 'not just as an act of aggression but a war crime of the Western coalition.'
In recent weeks the Russian military has reportedly began jamming some smaller US military drones operating in the skies over Syria. According to four US officials speaking to NBC news, this has affected American military operations.
The officials said the Russian military was concerned the US military would retaliate for the attacks and began jamming the GPS systems of drones operating in the area.
The drones impacted so far were smaller surveillance aircraft, as opposed to the larger Predators and Reapers that often operate in combat environments and can be armed.
Last year Donald Trump ordered a Tomahawk missile strike against the Syrian regime’s al-Shayrat airbase following a chemical weapons attack which killed dozens of civilians.
Russian forces did not shoot down the missile using its air defence systems stationed in the region.
At that time the US gave Russia advance warning of that attack through a deconfliction notice. But Russian military brass have signalled that their response could be different.
In March, Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, said: ‘In the case of a threat to the lives of our servicemen, the Russian military armed forces will take response measures against both the rockets, and the platforms from which they’re fired.'
Dmitri Trenin, the head of the Carnegie Moscow Centre and a former Soviet military officer, raised the terrifying prospect of a military clash between world superpowers.
He said: ‘The US and Russia are now closer to a direct collision between their military forces than at any time since the cold war.
‘The only question on my mind: will Russia hit back at the US when it launches strikes against Damascus?’
According to rescue workers, on Saturday more than 40 people died in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma in an alleged chemical attack, which left victims struggling to breathe, foaming at the mouth and with discoloured skin.
The World Health Organisation today condemned the suspected chemical weapons attack, in which it said an estimated 500 patients went to health facilities with 'signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals'.
'WHO demands immediate unhindered access to the area to provide care to those affected, to assess the health impacts, and to deliver a comprehensive public health response,' Peter Salama, WHO deputy director-general for emergency preparedness and response, said in a statement issued in Geneva.
But the United States, Britain and France have argued the incident bears all the hallmarks of a strike ordered by the regime of Russia's ally Assad, which has been blamed for previous attacks by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Trump has warned there would be a 'big price to pay', and Washington's UN ambassador Nikki Haley made it clear that the failure to secure a Security Council vote would not hold America and its allies back.
'Russia has trashed the credibility of the council,' she said. 'Whenever we propose anything meaningful on Syria, Russia vetoes it. It is a travesty.'
Haley dismissed the Russian draft as 'all about protecting the Assad regime' because of provisions that would have required the Security Council to endorse its findings -- in other words, giving Russia a veto over any attempt to apportion blame.
Russia, in turn, vetoed the US-backed motion, which would have re-established an international Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) to probe chemical strikes in Syria and to identify culprits.
Moscow's UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused Haley of seeking a vote to provide cover for a Western military strike on Assad, which now seems all the more likely.
'If you took the decision to carry out an illegal military adventure, and we do hope that you will come to your senses, well then you will have to bear responsibility for it,' he said.
Both Trump and his defense secretary Jim Mattis abruptly cancelled upcoming travel plans Tuesday, as the USS Donald Cook - a guided-missile destroyer - moved to within striking range of Syria.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been coordinating closely with Washington, said he would decide on a response 'in the coming days.'
'Our decision will not target allies of the regime or attack anyone but rather attack the regime's chemical capabilities,' he said, insisting he did 'not want an escalation.'
As it looked to head off the threat of Western strikes, Syria said it had invited the OPCW to visit the site of the alleged attack in Douma, a settlement in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta that is falling to the regime after a long and bloody siege.
The OPCW said it would 'shortly' deploy a fact-finding team to Douma for an investigation, but US officials said they were working from their own information and would not necessarily hold back.
1. Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, Commander, U.S. European Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe
Damascus also mobilized overnight Tuesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said the army had 'put all military positions on alert, including airports and all bases, for a period of 72 hours.'
A source from a pro-regime unit told AFP Tuesday there were 'precautionary measures being taken by the Syrian army, especially the airports and military bases.'
Residents in the capital were also bracing for a potential response.
'I have lived through seven American presidents, but Trump is the craziest and his administration is unbalanced,' said Abu Fadi, 70.
'I think his threats are to be feared, and we should take them seriously.'
In 2017, Trump launched a cruise missile strike against a Syrian air base in retaliation for a sarin attack the UN later pinned on Assad.
The United States, Britain and France have argued the incident bears all the hallmarks of a strike ordered by the regime of Russia's ally Assad, which has been blamed for previous attacks by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)
Syria's government has denied accusations of using banned weapons such as chlorine or sarin throughout the country's civil war.
Douma has been heavily bombed by the regime and Russia is making it extremely difficult for media to independently verify the claims.
United Nations chief Antonio Guterres said Tuesday the OPCW should be granted unfettered access to investigate.
The OPCW does not have a mandate to establish who is responsible for attacks, and the joint OPCW-UN taskforce that once did was shut down by Russia last year after it blamed the Syria regime.
Damascus agreed to hand over its chemical arsenal in 2013, narrowly avoiding American and French air strikes in retaliation for a suspected sarin attack.
That incident, which killed hundreds, also took place in Eastern Ghouta.
Trump has threatened to respond 'forcefully' to the most recent allegations, saying the US had 'a lot of options militarily' and would decide in the coming days.
The White House said that, in a telephone call, Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May 'agreed not to allow the use of chemical weapons to continue.'