WASHINGTON (TNS) — President Donald Trump signaled Wednesday that he was on the verge of ordering a barrage of “nice and new and ‘smart!’ ” missiles against the Syrian military for its suspected use of poison gas against civilians, dismissing a threat that Russian forces would shoot down U.S. missiles in flight.


The warning came as U.S. and French warships armed with cruise missiles are in the eastern Mediterranean off the Syrian coast, and activists said that Syrian forces had begun evacuating air bases and other military facilities in anticipation of a U.S.-led air raid aimed at punishing the government in Damascus and crippling its chemical weapons capabilities.


Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and other national security aides huddled at the White House as leaders in Britain, France and Saudi Arabia pledged support for a strong response to the suspected poison gas attack Saturday that killed more than 40 people, including children, in a rebel-held town outside Damascus.


Mattis suggested that Trump had not yet decided to launch the Tomahawks. “We’re assessing the intelligence — ourselves and our allies,” he told reporters. “We’re ready to provide military options if they are appropriate, as the president determines.”


Any air assault is expected to be more extensive and more damaging than Trump’s decision last April to fire 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against a single Syrian airfield in response to a nerve gas attack that month. The airfield was back in operation soon after.


The crisis in Syria has sparked a new level of tension between Washington and Moscow, raising concern that the dispute over a suspected chemical attack could spiral into a deadly conflict between the former Cold War enemies. Both countries have several thousand troops deployed in Syria.


Trump fanned those fears early Wednesday with tweets aimed at the Kremlin and Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom Russia supports in the country’s 7-year-old civil war.


“Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ ” Trump tweeted. “You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”


Trump tweeted after a mid-level Russian diplomat defiantly claimed that Russian forces in Syria would shoot down U.S. missiles in midair, and suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin had issued the order. The Kremlin did not confirm that Putin had done so.


“Russia will execute the statement of its president related to any U.S. aggression against Syria, knocking down American missiles and striking at the sources of fire,” Alexander Zasypkin, Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon, told the Lebanese television channel Al Manar.


Trump’s tweet was striking given his reluctance over the last year to criticize Putin. He has largely remained silent even as his administration has imposed sanctions on more than 100 Russians, including some in Putin’s inner circle, and expelled scores of accused Russian spies, in retaliation for Russian meddling in the 2016 election, its cyberattacks and other malicious activities.