Russia is threatening to down down any U.S. missiles fired at the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and strike back at the launch sites. The U.S. has said it may launch a retaliatory attack against Assad's government forces in retribution for a chemical weapons attack against Syrian civilians last week. President Trump took to Twitter yesterday to say as much, in his typically colorful way.
Whether there was actually a chemical weapons attack and who launched it is fiercely debated by both sides. The U.S. and its allies say that the people in the town which was hit, Douma, have symptoms consistent with exposure to chemical weapons and that Assad is behind the attack. Russia and Syria variously deny that such an attack occurred or that the U.S. or other forces were behind the attack to use it as a pretext for war. Just today, though, France is reporting that they have proof that Assad's Syrian government was behind the attack.
If Russia does attempt to shoot down American missiles, it will be a significant escalation of tensions in the region. Worse, though, would be a Russian attack against the missile "launch sites" as this would mean attacks against U.S. naval forces in the region. Shooting down a missile is one thing; attacking a U.S. warship is a whole additional level of provocation and one which would likely kick-start a wider war.
There have been previous dust-ups between the two sides in Syria as each attempts to fight ISIS while also seeking its own goals in the region. Russia wants Assad, a loyal puppet of Putin, to remain in power; the U.S. wants Assad gone, as he is viewed as a tyrant and illegitimate ruler. Various Syrian militia groups are also fighting in the area, some against Assad, some for Assad; some for ISIS, some against ISIS. The Kurds are also part of this calculus, as the U.S. has been supporting Kurdish forces in their fight against ISIS (and the Kurds have been competent fighters), but Turkey (which is growing closer to Russia as it crawls towards totalitarianism under Erdogan) has been battling against the Kurds to try to stifle Kurdish ambitions for independence, in some cases even bombing U.S-supported forces.
If Russia responds militarily to U.S. strikes, then it is very likely that these fluid lines in Syria will solidify with the U.S., Kurds, and European allies on one side and Russia, Syria, and Turkey on the other, thus fracturing NATO and also leaving what's left of ISIS in the interesting spot of no longer being the main target of the major powers in the region.
(Image: Picture of Bashar al-Assad, Aleppo, Abbarah square; By Charismaniac - Own work, Public Domain,