Russia’s top diplomat accused the United States on Wednesday of carrying out an unlawful attack against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces as he opened a fraught meeting with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Giving Tillerson a chilly reception, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said #Russia was trying to understand the “real intentions” of the Trump administration. He said Moscow has lots of questions about the “very ambiguous” and “contradictory” ideas emanating from Washington.
‘Are we going to get involved with Syria? No.’— Donald Trump
“We have seen very alarming actions recently with an unlawful attack against #Syria ,” Lavrov said, referring to the cruise missiles President Donald Trump ordered to punish Assad for using chemical weapons. “We consider it of utmost importance to prevent the risks of replay of similar action in the future.”
It was an ominous start to Tillerson’s visit — the first to Russia by a Trump Cabinet official. Tillerson conceded the two world powers had “sharp differences” that have obstructed co-operation but voiced optimism that their talks could narrow those differences.
“We both have agreed our lines of communication shall always remain open,” Tillerson said.
Trump, meanwhile, told Fox Business News that the U.S. had no plans to become more deeply involved in Syria and only did so because of last week’s deadly chemical weapons attack that killed dozens. Turkey has said tests showed sarin gas was used.
“Are we going to get involved with Syria? No,” Trump said in the interview, which aired Wednesday in the U.S. “But if I see them using gas… we have to do something.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Tillerson at the Kremlin on Wednesday evening, ending speculation he might snub the visiting American. A news conference is expected at 12:30 p.m. ET.
The palpable tension hanging over Tillerson’s trip spoke to a widening chasm between the former Cold War foes.
Only weeks ago, it appeared that Trump, who lavishly praised Putin throughout the campaign, was poised for a potentially historic rapprochement with Russia. But any expectations of an easy rapport have crashed into reality as the two countries trade escalating accusations over what happened last week in rebel-held territory in northern Syria.
‘The level of trust… most likely has degraded.’— Vladimir Putin
“Frankly, Putin is backing a person that’s truly an evil person,” Trump aid in the Fox Business Network interview, referring to Assad. “I think it’s very bad for Russia. I think it’s very bad for mankind.”
Of Assad, Trump added: “This is an animal.”
And Putin, who U.S. intelligence agencies say tried to help Trump get elected, insisted that relations with the U.S. had only gone downhill since Trump took office in January.
“The level of trust at the working level, especially at the military level, has not become better but most likely has degraded,” Putin said in an interview broadcast Wednesday by state television channel Mir.
Moscow blames rebels
Moscow has strenuously objected to Trump’s decision to launch 59 U.S. Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base that the U.S. says was used to pummel civilians with nerve gas, resulting in some 87 deaths. Russia, Assad’s staunchest ally, has insisted that Assad is blameless and that it was actually the rebels responsible for the disbursed chemical weapons.
Intelligence services from several Western countries dispute that claim. The health minister in Turkey, which treated many of the attack’s victims and conducted autopsies on others, said Tuesday that test results conducted on victims confirmed sarin gas was used.
Adding further fuel to rising tensions: the White House’s move to circulate declassified U.S. intelligence accusing Moscow of aiding Assad’s government in covering up the chemical attack. The U.S. also accused Russia of mounting a disinformation campaign aimed at exonerating Assad.
Tillerson, on a mission to persuade Russia to abandon Assad, issued an ultimatum to Putin before flying to Moscow: Either side with the U.S. and like-minded countries, or with Assad, Iran and the militant group Hezbollah.
But Russia made clear it had no intention to acquiesce. Putin quickly invited the Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers to Moscow on Friday, the day after Tillerson departs.
“Our policy is consistent and it’s formulated exclusively on the basis of international law and not under the impact of current opportunistic motives or false choice: ‘You are with us or against us,”‘ Lavrov told Tillerson.
Subtly mocking his guest, Lavrov said their talks were especially important because “not all key positions in the State Department have been filled yet.” He was referring to widespread vacancies throughout the top State Department leadership that has fuelled a perception in the U.S. that Tillerson and his agency are being sidelined by #Trump .
“It’s not easy to get clarifications on the current as well as prospective issues because of that,” Lavrov said.