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Syria tension (liveblog): Gen. Votel cancels appearance; May calls cabinet meeting for tomorrow

NOTE: If you’re a “ChemTruther”… if you disagree with Amnesty International, the OPCW, WHO, MSF, the UN (breakdown), and all public evidence about past attacks, and are here to do the same about the most recent one… leave.  You’re not welcome here, any more than a 9/11 Truther would be welcome in a liveblog about 9/11.

On with the news.

After Trump’s famous “missiles coming” tweets this morning (which caused the rouble to plunge), it’s not like the signs that this was coming have been lacking. The Pentagon tried to back off a bit, noting that it “does not comment on potential future military actions“, but the impact was clear.  Russia, which had reportedly been anticipating a strike last night, further responded by removing 11 warships from its Syrian naval base in Tartous out to sea (ships are vulnerable in port). Syria is repositioning air assets.  Mattis progressed from “We stand ready to provide military options” to an unscheduled meeting at the White House, which will shortly be having a press conference at 3:30 EST.  France appears to be fully onboard, plans in place. In the UK, while Corbyn wants a vote on Syria, May appears ready to go.  The Turkish foreign minister stated that it’s necessary to remove Assad.  Saudi Arabia reiterated its support.

This could be a continued fake-out to stress the readiness of the Syrian military by keeping it anticipating an attack that doesn’t come, keeping its air assets off the battlefield and keeping its air defense forces on edge with little sleep (skies over Syria are of course clear of commercial aircraft). But I don’t think so. I fully expect an attack. Most probably, tonight.  And hence, I’ll keep this as a liveblog, if there’s anything new to report. Starting with the White House press conference in 20 minutes.

It’s 10:10 PM in Damascus right now.   The US usually launches attacks at night.

15:10 EST: Well, that was quick. An on-the-ground source in eastern Syria is reporting ground-to-ground attacks against Syrian air defense forces in eastern Syria from the US base in the al-Omar oilfield. 

Keep your skeptic’s hat on for now. There’s still plenty of Daesh activity in that area, for example. If I don’t see any other signs of attacks within 20 minutes I’ll write this off.

15:20 EST: From State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert:

The #Assad regime’s history of #ChemicalWeapons use is not in dispute. Its actions as a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention are an egregious violation. #Russia’s denials and other obstructionist actions call into question its own commitment to non-proliferation.

Reports from contacts on the ground in #Douma are credible & will be investigated by the independent #OPCW fact-finding mission. This was a barbaric attack & the int'l community must hold any party that uses #ChemicalWeapons accountable. We will stand up for the people of #Syria.

15:30 EST: Press conference still hasn’t started, but should shortly.  Also, I went back and adjusted all of the times to EST rather than my local timezone.

No followup reports out of eastern Syria. I’ll write that off for now.

15:40 EST: Bunch of reporters sitting in a room with an empty podium. Huckabee is hucka-absent.

15:50 EST: Still missing. Meanwhile, Daily Beast reporter Spencer Ackerman reports that Gen. Joe Votel,  commander of US forces in the Middle East, has cancelled a public appearance in New York tomorrow.

16:00 EST: Speaking at an annual Holocaust commemoration, Netanyahu stated:

The events of the last days teach that standing up to evil and aggression is a mission that is incumbent upon every generation. We saw the Syrian children who were slaughtered with chemical weapons. Our hearts were rent by the horrific sights … The lack of willingness among the powers of the West to stand firm in the face of the tyrannical regime, their lack of willingness to pay the price of stopping aggression at an early stage, led to humanity paying a much greater price later on

Press conference is on.

16:10 EST: Asked about this morning’s tweets: “What does ‘Get ready, Russia’ mean?” 

“We’re maintaining that we have a number of options … final decisions have not been made” 

“But what does it mean?”

“There’s a lot there you can read from it, but the president has a number of options, and all those options remain on the table”

She was also asked whether the president’s tweeting constitutes a national security risk  😉  She keeps saying the phrase “All options are on the table” over and over; it appears to be the talking point of the evening.

Asked why the US stance has changed from “We’re assessing the intelligence about the attack” to “confident that the Assad government and Russia are to blame”, Huckabee dodged the question.

16:15 EST: Asked if diplomacy was still an option, she repeated (for probably the 15th time this conference) “All options are on the table”.  But the reporter really struggled to get her to state directly that diplomacy would be an option; she said yes, but added that it’s one among “many other options”.

Discussing meetings with other countries, she name dropped the UK, France, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.  Turkey wasn’t on her list.

Asked whether congressional authorization is needed, she responded, “Obviously the administration will follow whatever laws and regulations are necessary for any actions we may take. Because we haven’t laid out any actions I can’t say what laws and regulations…”

Reporters keep coming back to Trump’s tweets announcing missile strike plans and how that reconciles with the notion that no decision on what action to take has been made.  She keeps responding that it’s just one option among many, which of course doesn’t actually address the question.

16:20 EST: Final question: is there anything Syria or Russia can do to avoid military action at this point?  “All options are on the table.”

16:45 EST: May has reportedly directed UK missile subs to the eastern Mediterranean. They supposedly will be ready to fire tomorrow night.

17:00 EST: It’s now just past midnight in Damascus.  The Shayrat missile strike, for reference, was conducted at 04:40 Damascus time.

17:15 EST: Theresa May has called an unscheduled meeting of her cabinet for tomorrow.

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