Chief of the General Staff of Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov
© REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Chief of the General Staff of Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov arrives for the opening ceremony of the International Army Games 2017 in Alabino, outside Moscow, Russia, July 29, 2017
Moscow plans to respond to any US strike on Syria and will target any missiles and launchers involved in such an attack, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the head of the Russian General Staff, warned Tuesday.

"The US seeks to use [any alleged] provocation ... as a pretext to strike government areas in Damascus," Gerasimov told state-operated news agency RIA.

"We have credible information that militants are now preparing to stage the use of chemical weapons on civilians by the Syrian government forces. For this goal, the militants have brought to eastern Ghouta people, including women, children and elders, from other areas. These people have to play victims of this staged chemical attack. The White Helmets with their cameramen are already there for live broadcasts," said Gerasimov.

He added that the Russian military has discovered a lab used for poisonous chemical production in the terrorist-freed town of Aftriss.

Gerasimov alleges that the United States plans to use this staged attack as "proof" of "Russia-supported Syrian government use of chemicals on civilians" and will strike government areas in Damascus with missiles. Gerasimov stressed that Russian military advisers, military police and Russian Reconciliation Center servicemen are in Damascus. He warned that Moscow will retaliate if the lives of Russian servicemen are endangered.

The statement - arguably the harshest in its tone this year - came less than 24 hours after US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said the United States is willing "to take military action to end the Syrian bombing of civilians if the UN is unable to do so."

Later that day, French President Emmanuel Macron issued a similar warning that Paris is "prepared to launch targeted strikes against any site in Syria used to deploy chemical attacks that result in the deaths of civilians."

A Kremlin official speaking with Al-Monitor not for attribution said, "The mounting information warfare on Russia, be it [about] Ghouta or the new [poisoned] spy scandal with the UK," is perceived as their "version of interference."

"A few days before the [March 18] presidential elections here, the US threatens new strikes. Some Europeans say they support it, then the UK spins this story of a killed ex-spy, blaming it on us. All of this is meant to increase pressure on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, to make his likely new presidential term look illegitimate. I guess this is how they interfere in our own elections after being unable to find proof of our interference into theirs."

Moscow sees developments in eastern Ghouta as yet another critical point in the Syrian campaign. Vladimir Akhmedov, a fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a notable Russian expert on Syria, wrote that the situation there is a multifaceted case for Russia not only in terms of military operations, but also in how to work with local councils and opposition groups.

"Since the defeat of [the Islamic State], the US strategy on Syria has changed. Learning from the Iraq experience, they believe a drawdown there was premature. Now they want to first limit Russia's influence in Syria and thus impede it from ensuring control over key areas and, second, to belittle Russia's role as a fair intermediary in Geneva. They also seek to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran and thus deprive Moscow of an ally and isolate Tehran from a further active role in Syrian affairs. Then they would reshuffle political decisions on Syria to the point where [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] would have no future and Iran is seriously marginalized. So the outcome on Ghouta is really a litmus test for the new US policy on Syria," Akhmedov said.

The stated arguments reflect broader intellectual and political discussions on how to amend Moscow's course in Syria and counter what is increasingly seen as a more assertive US posture. Russia's tough rhetoric coupled with the recent announcement of new strategic arms are meant to signal confidence among Russia's top decision-makers and the serious intent to not back down in the face of mounting pressures.

"A direct military clash would be catastrophic for everyone, but this [situation] has gotten too serious for retreat," the Kremlin official said. "We are open to negotiations [with the United States], and the sooner we start them the less chance we slip into clashes."

In a lengthy TV interview March 11, Putin spoke of an episode of his early years in St. Petersburg when he was chasing a rat from an apartment block house where he lived with his parents.

"So I cornered the rat," Putin recollected, "and it suddenly turned back on me. I was scared and fled all the way back up to my apartment, but the rat continued to chase me."

The lesson Putin said he learned from that incident was, "Never corner your opponent" to the point where they turn back and bite.

Maxim A. Suchkov, Ph.D., is editor of Al-Monitor's Russia-Mideast coverage. He is a non-resident expert at the Russian International Affairs Council and at the Valdai International Discussion Club. Formerly he was a Fulbright visiting fellow at Georgetown University (2010-11) and New York University (2015). On Twitter: @MSuchkov_ALM Email: msuchkov@al-monitor.com