United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley greets Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya before the United Nations Security Council meeting on Syria at the U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley greets her Russian counterpart Vasily Nebenzya before a Security Council meeting on the Syria crisis © Reuters

French president Emmanuel Macron expressed his “profound” concern about the war in Syria and his “regrets” over Russia’s decision to block a UN-led investigation into a suspected gas attack in a phone call with Vladimir Putin on Friday.

The call was the first between a western leader and the Russian president since an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Syrian town of Douma last week, and came as the US, France and the UK prepared their response to the deadly assault.

The threat of military action in Syria by the US and its allies has raised concerns about a confrontation with Russia, which has war planes and troops based in the country in support of President Bashar al-Assad and has threatened to retaliate against US strikes in Syria.

Mr Macron’s call with Mr Putin appeared to be designed to reduce the risk of any retaliation from Russia. The French president called for more dialogue with Moscow, noted the two countries’ shared interests in fighting Isis in Syria and said Paris would support efforts to find a political solution to the seven-year civil war in the Arab state.

“The president of the republic called for dialogue with Russia to be maintained and stepped up to bring peace and stability back to Syria,” said a statement from Mr Macron’s office.

The Kremlin said Mr Putin urged France and its allies to “refrain from ill-considered and dangerous actions which would . . . have unpredictable consequences”. The two leaders had instructed their foreign and defence ministers to keep in close contact in order to work towards de-escalation of the current tension, the Kremlin said.

Michel Duclos, a former French ambassador to Damascus, said the phone conversation may herald imminent military action against Syria. “It looks like a diplomatic call designed to accompany strikes,” he said.

The White House said on Thursday that US president Donald Trump had spoken to Mr Macron and UK prime minister Theresa May regarding potential strikes in Syria.

Mr Trump spoke again to Mr Macron earlier on Friday, said Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, adding that the White House was holding “ongoing meetings” on Syria.

The talks between the US, France and the UK have centred around the list of targets they have agreed to draw together before launching co-ordinated strikes, an EU diplomat said. While it appeared that the allies had agreed not to hit Russian targets, Paris was resisting US options to include Iranian or Hizbollah assets, the diplomat said.

Iran and Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia movement, have also deployed forces to Syria to back Mr Assad. Moscow and Damascus have denied that any gas attack took place and have accused the Syrian opposition of fabricating the incident.

Mr Macron said on Thursday that France had proof the Syrian regime was behind the attacks and that it would respond “in due time” and in a co-ordinated way with the US and the UK. But he added that he would also “seek to avoid escalation in the region”.

Jim Mattis, US defence secretary, made similar comments on Thursday, adding that the Trump administration had made no decision to strike Syria. Appearing before the House armed services committee, Mr Mattis said the US was concerned that innocent people did not die in any attack. “On a strategic level it is ‘how do we keep this from escalating out of control’,” he said.

UN secretary-general António Guterres warned at a meeting of the Security Council that the cold war was back “with a vengeance”.

He told a session called by Russia to debate the Syria crisis that the safeguards and mechanisms that had managed the risk of escalation between the US and the Soviet Union in the past “no longer seem to be present”.

Citing multiple points of conflict and proxy wars in the Middle East, Mr Guterres said the region was in such “chaos” that it had become a danger to international peace and security, with Syria representing the most serious threat”.

After an emergency meeting in Downing Street lasting more than two hours, Mrs May won cabinet backing to deploy UK forces in any US-led assault.

Mr Trump on Wednesday warned Russia, which intervened militarily in the Syrian conflict to back Mr Assad, to “get ready” for a missile attack, but on Thursday the president refused to be drawn on the timing of any action. “Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!” he said in a tweet.

Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, told reporters that the so-called de-confliction mechanism was “being used by both sides”. Mr Peskov reiterated an appeal to the US to “avoid any steps that could lead to increased tension in Syria”.

“We believe that this would have an extremely destructive effect on the entire Syrian settlement process,” he said.

It was reported that the hotline was used a year ago when Mr Trump ordered 59 cruise missiles be fired at a Syrian air base following a gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun that killed more than 80 people. US officials warned Russia, which had personnel at the base, in advance of the strike.

Relations between Moscow and Washington have deteriorated markedly since then.

Alexander Zasypkin, Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon, this week reminded the US that the head of the Russian military had said his forces in Syria would not only shoot down any missiles that threatened them but would target the source of the weapons.

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