Tillerson talks tough on Syria before meeting Russians in Moscow

UPDATE 2 — 4/12, 9:10 a.m. EDT: Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov began Russia’s first meeting with a Trump administration official on a negative note Wednesday, accusing the U.S. of breaking international protocol in its attack of a Syrian airbase.

“We have seen very alarming actions recently with an unlawful attack against Syria,” Lavrov said.

Meanwhile, in a Wednesday interview on Fox Business, President Trump indicated Thursday’s military action was a one-off, pursued solely on Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

“Are we going to get involved with Syria? No,” Trump said. “But if I see them using gas . . . we have to do something.”

 

UPDATE — 4:21 p.m. EDT: NPR is reporting both a declassified National Security Council report and U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded President Assad used chemical agents in a April 4 attack in western Syria to stave off rebel forces that were gaining ground in the region.

The NSC report said evidence of chemicals was found using “signals intelligence and geospatial intelligence, laboratory analysis of physiological samples collected from multiple victims, as well as a significant body of credible open source reporting.”

 

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Moscow for bilateral talks with Russia on Tuesday following a two-day meeting in Italy with G7 and Western-allied Middle East foreign ministers.

The Group of Seven, including key U.S. allies like the UK and Germany, primarily focused on a Syrian follow-up strategy following last week’s events which culminated with the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles from American warships on the Shayrat airbase in Homs.

Although all G7 countries have condemned President Bashar al-Assad for his latest use of chemical weapons, further action against Syria or Russia has not been uniformly agreed to by the world’s most advanced economies.

A proposal by UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson to sanction both countries was nixed by the group as a whole. Secretary Johnson had argued that announcing sanctions prior to Tillerson’s meeting with Russia would give the U.S. leverage in negotiations with Kremlin officials over Syria.

“There is no consensus on additional new sanctions,” said Italy’s Angelino Alfano. “We must have a dialogue with Russia and we must not push Russia into a corner.”

Despite an unwillingness to punish Russia economically for the misdeeds of the allied Syrian government, Tillerson told reporters prior to leaving Italy that the West will no longer tolerate human rights abuses on the part of Assad.

The U.S. secretary of state also referenced a 2013 agreement to which Russia was a party, stipulating that Syria would no longer use chemical weapons.

“It is unclear whether Russia failed to take this obligation seriously and whether Russia has been incompetent,” Tillerson said. “But this distinction doesn’t much matter to the dead. We can’t let this happen again.”

Tillerson also used some provocative language, saying the “reign of the Assad family is coming to an end.” He added the U.S. wanted Russia to realize “that they have aligned themselves with an unreliable partner in Bashar al-Assad.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, disputes chemical agents were used in an attack that killed over 80 people last week in Idlib, near the Turkish border, and claims the Kremlin has “information” that enemies of the Syrian government will plant the outlawed weapons outside Damascus in an attempt to frame Assad.

Putin has also called for a UN investigation of the alleged chemical incident and says blaming Moscow for having prior knowledge of the attack reminds him of 2003, when the U.S. claimed Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction.

“Russia, of course, is not going to surrender its legitimate interests and accepts cooperation only on an equal basis, which is not to everyone’s liking in Washington,” a statement by the Russian foreign ministry read.

Russia’s denial of Assad’s use of chemical weapons has been disputed by Turkish health minister, Recep Akdag, who said Tuesday the existence of sarin nerve gas has been “verified” through the medical examination of attack victims who were brought across the border to Turkey.

Secretary Tillerson is only scheduled to meet with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, although an encounter with President Putin has not been ruled out.

 

Editor’s note: This article has been updated.

 

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