WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump huddled with top national security advisors Thursday to weigh his military options in Syria, as Moscow warned against any move that risks triggering a conflict between Russia and the United States.

The drumbeat of military action appeared to grow louder, as Russia stonewalled diplomatic efforts at the United Nations and France declared “proof” that Moscow’s Syrian ally carried out a deadly chemical weapons attack that killed more than 40 Syrians.

“It’s too bad that the world puts us in a position like that,” said Trump, as Defense Secretary James Mattis headed to the West Wing to present options for a retaliatory strike. “We’re having a number of meetings today, we’ll see what happens, we’re obviously looking at that very closely,” he told lawmakers and governors in the Cabinet Room.

“Now we have to make some further decisions, so they will be made fairly soon,” added first-term commander-in-chief, who earlier appeared to equivocate on the timing of strikes.

A French frigate, UK Royal Navy submarines laden with cruise missiles and the USS Donald Cook, an American destroyer equipped with Tomahawk land attack missiles have all moved into range of Syria’s sun-bleached coast. The Cook - named after a Marine Colonel who suffered depravation and starvation as a Vietnam prisoner of war - has past experience tangling with the Russian military, having been deployed to the Black Sea during the recent crisis in Crimea.

Half a world away in New York, Russia’s UN ambassador warned the priority in Syria was to avert US-led strikes that could lead to a dangerous confrontation between the world’s two preeminent nuclear powers.

“The immediate priority is to avert the danger of war,” said Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia following closed-door Security Council talks. Asked if he was referring to war between the US and Russia, he said: “We cannot exclude any possibilities unfortunately.”

US officials have refused to rule out direct military engagement with Russia, with the White House saying “all options are on the table.” But a special hotline for the US and Russian militaries to communicate about operations in Syria is active and being used by both sides, Moscow said Thursday. On the ground in Syria, rebels in Eastern Ghouta surrendered their heavy weapons and their leader left the enclave, signalling the end of one of the bloodiest assaults of the seven-year war and a major win for the Assad regime.

At the United Nations meanwhile, diplomats were mulling a draft resolution put forward by Sweden and obtained by AFP, that would dispatch a “high-level disarmament mission” to rid the country of chemical weapons “once and for all.”

The UN Security Council, tasked with maintaining international peace and security, has been riven, with Moscow virulently denying the Douma attack took place, or postulating that it was carried out by rebels.

The council has already failed to agree on a response to the attack in three votes and has been deadlocked throughout the Syrian civil war.

In Paris, France’s Emmanuel Macron upped the pressure on Moscow by stating he had “proof” that the Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons, and vowing a response “at a time of our choosing.”

In London, the British government on Thursday agreed on the “need to take action” over a chemical weapons attack in Syria, Prime Minister Theresa May’s office said.

“Cabinet agreed on the need to take action to alleviate humanitarian distress and to deter the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime,” Downing Street said after May met her top team. Ministers “agreed the prime minister should continue to work with allies in the United States and France to coordinate an international response,” May’s office added.

But across Western capitals opposition to military action also grew. US lawmakers questioned whether Trump has the legal authority to order strikes without Congressional approval and opposition parties voiced concern.

Germany’s Angela Merkel said it was “obvious” that Syria hadn’t eradicated its chemical arsenal as it had earlier claimed.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed those behind the killings of civilians would pay a “heavy price”, after the foreign ministry said there was a “strong suspicion” Assad’s regime was responsible. Erdogan said Thursday Turkey was worried by the “arm wrestling” of world powers over Syria.

Moscow on Thursday called on the West to “seriously consider” the consequences of threats against Syria after the US and France said they would respond to an alleged chemical attack.

“We call upon... members of the international community to seriously consider the possible consequences of such accusations, threats and especially action (against Syria),” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.

“Nobody has authorised Western leaders to take on the role of global police - simultaneously investigator, prosecution, judge and executor,” she said during a press briefing. “Our position is perfectly clear and defined. We are not seeking escalation.”

 

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday the use of chemical weapons in Syria is “simply inexcusable,” after a suspected poison gas attack in Douma.

“Some things are simply inexcusable, beyond the pale and in the worst interest of not just the chemical weapons convention but of civilization itself,” Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee.

Lawmakers quizzed Mattis on what he made of President Donald Trump’s confused messaging over Syria.