Donald Trump has backtracked on his explosive rhetoric on Syria to announce he “never said when” a strike on the country would take place.
The surprise statement comes just a day after he raised international tensions by warning Russia that an attack in Syria, in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack, was imminent.
On Thursday, the US President said the attack could “be very soon or not so soon at all”, before asking why America had not received a “thank you” for ridding Syria of Islamic State (Isis).
The statement contradicts a tweet sent on Tuesday, in which he wrote: “get ready Russia”, warning that missiles “will be coming” to Syria and that they would be “nice and new and smart”.
“You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it,” Trump wrote of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
The President’s tweets come as the Kremlin said on Thursday that a crisis communications link - or “deconfliction” telephone line - with the US, was being used by both sides.
The Kremlin spoke as Prime Minister Theresa May called an emergency War Cabinet meeting to discuss whether the UK should join the US and France in a possible military attack on Syria, that threatens to bring western and Russian forces into direct confrontation.
Emmanuel Macron said France has proof the Syrian government carried out the attack, which aid groups have said killed dozens of people, and will decide whether to strike back when all the necessary information has been gathered.
The French President said: “We have proof that last week ... chemical weapons were used, at least with chlorine, and that they were used by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.”
“We will need to take decisions in due course, when we judge it most useful and effective,” he told broadcaster TF1.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the attack showed that Assad’s regime had failed to eradicate its chemical arsenal, but she ruled out joining any military action against Syria.
“We... must now acknowledge that it is obvious that the destruction was not completely carried out,” she said, noting that there is “strong evidence” that Damascus deployed the chemical weapons.
Russia’s military has denied that soil samples or other tests revealed the use of chemical weapons, as experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OCPW) are due to arrive.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow sought no escalation of the situation, but that it could not support “dishonest accusations” and it had found no evidence of a chemical weapons attack in Douma.
The ministry urged the specialists to be deployed before a possible attack by US forces and its allies.
“Any delay in visiting the location of the alleged incident could lead to another reckless move of Washington, which already fired missiles on Syria’s Shayrat airbase in April 2017 in violation of the UN charter and international law,” the ministry said in a statement.
On Wednesday Russia announced it would be sending ground troops to Douma and today it said control of the town had been transferred to Syrian government forces.
Asked whether the so-called deconfliction line between the Russian and US militaries for Syria was being used to avoid potential Russian casualties in the event of a US strike, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “The line is used and it is active. In general the line is used by both sides.”
Peskov said the Kremlin was closely following Syria-related announcements from Washington and reiterated a Kremlin call for restraint.
“We continue to consider it extremely important to avoid any steps that could lead to more tension in Syria. We believe that would have an extremely destructive impact on the whole Syria settlement process,” he said.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that any potential action by Western states would cause more instability in the region, Syrian state television reported on Thursday as the US.
“With every victory achieved on the field, the voices of some Western states are raised and actions are intensified in an attempt by them to change the course of events ... these voices and any possible action will contribute nothing but an increase in instability in the region, threatening international peace and security,” it quoted him saying.
Trump’s tweet, immediately saw previous remarks he made resurfacing.
News Statesman Political Editor George Eaten suggested on twitter that the President had clearly been “reminded” of his 2013 tweet on Syria.
“In war, the elememt [sic] of surprise is sooooo important. What the hell is Obama doing,” Eaten said, Trump wrote.
Middle East analyst Emile Hokayem said he understand why “many are hoping” for a US strike on Assad, but said he remained “sceptical”.
“1- possible backpedalling a la 2013, 2 - no strategic approach 3- Trump’s thinking on Syria: I strike and then I leave eastern Syria,” Hokatem tweeted.
The Ministry of Defence has refused to comment on reports that Royal Navy submarines had been ordered into range to launch Tomahawk cruise missile strikes as early as Thursday night.
Syria’s military has repositioned some air assets to avoid missile strikes, US officials told Reuters. Locating them alongside Russian military hardware might make Washington reluctant to hit them.
Russian ships had left the Tartus naval base in Syria, Interfax news agency quoted a Russian lawmaker as saying. Vladimir Shamanov, who chairs the defence committee of the lower house, said the vessels had departed the Mediterranean base for their own safety, which was “normal practice” when there were threats of attack.
For its part, the Russian military said it had observed movements of US Navy forces in the Gulf. Any US strike would probably involve the navy, given the risk to aircraft from Russian andSyrian air defences. A US guided-missile destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, is in the Mediterranean.
Moscow’s ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, warned on Wednesday that any US missiles unleashed at Syria would be shot down and the launch sites targeted.
Meanwhile, Brexit secretary David Davis has become the latest MP to perform an apparent U-turn on military intervention in Syria, now suggesting he may support action.
Davis was one of 30 Tory MPs to help defeat David Cameron’s plan for action against Bashar Al-Assad in 2013, following a chemical weapons strike against Syrian rebels.
HuffPost UK understands a number of Labour MPs who voted against action five years ago would now also back military action against the Syrian regime, after the latest chemical weapons attack in Douma, a rebel-held enclave outside Damascus.