Russian warships loaded with tanks have been spotted leaving Turkish waters headed for Syria.
It comes as the world awaits Vladimir Putin’s response to airstrikes on Assad’s chemical weapons programme carried out by the US, UK and France.
Putin is expected to order ‘payback’ in the form of a cyber warfare in the West. But images posted online suggest Russia will also step up its military efforts in the Syrian region.
Orsk, Russia’s amphibious transport ship, was seen leaving the Bosphorus strait on Sunday.
Naval observer Yoruk Isik said it was headed for Tartus, Russia’s coastal base in Syria, for the fourth time. It was loaded up with appeared to be tanks, lorries and military hardware.
Mr Isik highlighted that a Pelena-6 communications jammer looks to have been installed on the chassis of one of the tanks.
A second ship, the yellow tanker RoRo Alexandr Tkachenko was also pictured carrying trucks and materials for bridge construction.
It comes as Theresa May faces a backlash for snubbing MPs before joining the US-led assault. It’s claimed hackers could release embarrassing information about politicians as part of a two-pronged “dirty war” in retaliation for the bombing of Syria.
Spy chiefs also fear the Russian President is plotting a series of cyber attacks that could potentially cripple infrastructure – including the NHS, transport and power networks.
Intelligence officers at GCHQ and the Ministry of Defence are said to be on standby to respond to any cyber warfare “proportionately”.
The US, Britain and France hit three sites in Syria in response to a suspected deadly chlorine attack that killed up to 75 in former rebel stronghold Douma.
Last night Russian president Putin branded the missile strikes on his ally an “act of aggression” and warned further attacks would “have a destructive effect” on world peace.
PM Theresa May has reportedly received intelligence Russia could hit members of the UK establishment with “kompromat” – compromising information that could smear their reputations.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Moscow had a track record of cyber attacks and meddling in other countries’ democratic processes.
He told the BBC: “You have to take every precaution, and when you look at what Russia has done, not just in this country, in Salisbury, attacks on TV stations, on the democratic processes, on critical national infrastructure – of course, we have to be very, very cautious.
“But I want to stress, we in the UK do not seek an escalation, absolutely not.”
Mr Johnson said Western powers had no plans for further strikes but would assess their options if Syria’s government used chemical weapons again. He added: “This is not about regime change … This is not about trying to turn the tide of the conflict in Syria.”
Former Minister for Security, Alan West, also warned Britain could be the target of a dirty war as Putin tries to “hit back”. He said it was unlikely Russia would launch military action but would “find other ways”.
Lord West added: “I think he [Putin] will be wanting to do something. It might be a little bit of cyber. He’ll do something but he’s not going to go for missiles in Akrotiri [RAF base in Cyprus] or something like that.”
Michael Clarke, an academic specialising in defence studies, told our sister paper the Sunday Mirror an attack could be imminent in the next two or three weeks. He added: “Cyber warfare is highly likely. It will be an attack on national infrastructure, not just upsetting City firms, but getting inside the transport system, or the health system, or air traffic control.”
According to reports, Mrs May has been warned politicians could be singled out in any Russian cyber attack – as Hillary Clinton was during the US presidential election. One source told the Sunday Times: “We know what’s in the Russian playbook, kompromat type material, we’re all prepared for that.
“We know that they do have that ability to penetrate at that scale.
“We’re not saying there’s a picture of ‘X’ that’s waiting to come out but it’ll be amazing to us if they don’t have some of that kind of material.”
Referring to a possible counter cyber attack by Britain, the source added: “If they aggressively come after us, we will certainly have the ability to do some stuff to them. But unlike Russia, we abide by the law so anything we do would be proportionately done.”
It also emerged the PM is ready to order economic sanctions on London-based Russian oligarchs.
And Nikki Haley, US envoy to the UN, said new sanctions would be announced today against Russian firms linked to Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad.
Saturday morning’s strikes represented the most significant attack against Assad’s government by Western powers in seven years of Syria’s civil war. US officials claimed attacks on sites in Barzeh, Damascus, and Him Shinsar, west of Homs, had set Assad’s chemical weapons programme back years.
The Russians and the US said there were no reported casualties. After the strikes, the US revealed a Russian “disinformation campaign” had already begun.
The Pentagon’s Dana White said there was “a 2,000% increase in Russian trolls in 24 hours”.
The Kremlin is also thought to be boosting the number of spies in the UK – weeks after former agent Sergei Skripal and daughter Yulia were poisoned in Salisbury.
Colonel Richard Kemp, who led Operation Fingal in Afghanistan in 2002, said: “The Russians will be seeing us as more of a direct enemy. I think the likelihood is they will be increasing their espionage activity.”
Yesterday inspectors from the independent Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were in the Syrian capital Damascus. They met Syrian officials and were set to visit nearby Douma, in Eastern Ghouta.
The Syrian army announced on Saturday the region had been cleared of the last rebel fighters.
Some locals claimed yesterday the bombing against was less intense than expected. One supporter of the anti-Assad opposition, said: “It wasn’t as intense as they’re making it sound.
“We have no more faith in the international community.”
Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump has defended his use of the phrase “Mission Accomplished” following the allied attack.
George W. Bush said the same thing six weeks into the 2003 Iraq War, also declaring “major combat operations in Iraq have ended”.
It became a global symbol of US misjudgment and mistakes as the conflict continued to rage for years.
Mr Trump tweeted yesterday: “The Syrian raid was so perfectly carried out, with such precision, that the only way the Fake News Media could demean was by my use of the term ‘Mission Accomplished’.”
He added: “I knew they would seize on this but felt it is such a great Military term.” (Mirror)