Tiller­son talks tough as U.S. faces chilly Rus­sia

Charges traded over Syr­ian gas at­tack

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVE BOYER

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion bluntly warned Rus­sia on Tues­day that Moscow risks los­ing all its in­flu­ence in the Mid­dle East by con­tin­u­ing to sup­port Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar Assad and his use of chem­i­cal weapons against his own peo­ple in the coun­try’s bru­tal civil war.

Sec­re­tary of State Rex W. Tiller­son ar­rived in Moscow with an ul­ti­ma­tum for Rus­sia: side with the U.S. and like-minded coun­tries against Syria or em­brace Iran, mil­i­tant group Hezbol­lah and the em­bat­tled Mr. Assad.

At the Pen­tagon, De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis said Syria will pay a “very, very stiff price” if it uses chem­i­cal weapons again.

Se­nior White House of­fi­cials briefed re­porters on newly de­clas­si­fied in­tel­li­gence to show that the Syr­ian mil­i­tary had de­lib­er­ately bombed a town held by op­po­si­tion forces on April 4 with sarin gas, and that the Rus­sian mil­i­tary was likely “com­plicit” in the at­tack that killed more than 80 peo­ple.

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin im­me­di­ately showed that he wouldn’t back down, say­ing Wash­ing­ton’s ac­cu­sa­tions against the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment over the chem­i­cal at­tack re­sem­bled the un­proven claims made by the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion be­fore the U.S. in­vaded Iraq in 2003.

He said the missile bom­bard­ment or­dered by Pres­i­dent Trump last week on a Syr­ian air base “strongly re­sem­bles” the U.S. in­va­sion that fol­lowed Wash­ing­ton’s claims of Iraqi leader Sad­dam Hus­sein pos­sess­ing chem­i­cal weapons — claims that were later largely shown to be un­founded.

“It re­minds me of the events in 2003 when U.S. en­voys to the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil were demon­strat­ing what they said were chem­i­cal weapons found in Iraq,” Mr. Putin told re­porters. “We have seen it all al­ready.”

Mr. Trump, who dur­ing the cam­paign had called Mr. Putin a strong leader and

spoke of him fa­vor­ably, didn’t re­spond to a re­porter’s ques­tion Tues­day about whether he had changed his mind about the Rus­sian leader.

Mr. Trump came into of­fice hop­ing that he could strike a deal with Mr. Putin to de­stroy the Is­lamic State ex­trem­ist group op­er­at­ing in Syria and Iraq, while warn­ing against get­ting sucked into Syria’s civil war, a stance he re­it­er­ated Tues­day in an in­ter­view on Fox Busi­ness Net­work, de­spite last week’s airstrikes.

“We’re not go­ing into Syria,” the pres­i­dent said. “But when I see peo­ple us­ing hor­ri­ble, hor­ri­ble chem­i­cal weapons … and see these beau­ti­ful kids that are dead in their fa­ther’s arms, or you see kids gasp­ing for life … when you see that, I im­me­di­ately called [De­fense Sec­re­tary] Gen­eral Mat­tis.”

Mr. Trump said for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, who failed to en­force what he called a “red line” of Syria us­ing chem­i­cal weapons in 2013, should have taken ac­tion at the time.

“What I did should have been done by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion a long time be­fore I did it,” Mr. Trump said. “I think Syria would be a lot bet­ter off right now than it has been.”

Mr. Tiller­son is in Moscow on a high­stakes mis­sion to meet with Rus­sian of­fi­cials about the Syr­ian civil war, the first of­fi­cial trip to Rus­sia by a mem­ber of Mr. Trump’s Cab­i­net. It’s un­clear whether Mr. Putin and Mr. Tiller­son will meet.

Be­fore head­ing to Rus­sia, Mr. Tiller­son had some strong words of his own for the Rus­sians, telling re­porters that Moscow had ei­ther failed to take se­ri­ously its pledge to rid Syria of chem­i­cal weapons or had been “in­com­pe­tent.” The dis­tinc­tion “doesn’t much mat­ter to the dead” in Syria.

It wasn’t clear what the pun­ish­ment would be for a Rus­sian gov­ern­ment that has used its mil­i­tary might to help Mr. Assad and his ar­ray of al­lies score a se­ries of bat­tle­field suc­cesses in their six-year war with Syr­ian op­po­si­tion groups. A meet­ing of G-7 for­eign min­is­ters in Italy at­tended by Mr. Tiller­son de­clined to en­dorse a Bri­tish pro­posal for new sanc­tions on the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment and in­di­vid­u­als in the wake of the chem­i­cal at­tack.

To bol­ster the case against Rus­sia, the White House of­fered newly de­clas­si­fied in­tel­li­gence about the chem­i­cal weapons at­tack on the Syr­ian town of Khan Shaykhun to bol­ster its jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for launch­ing mis­siles against Syria’s mil­i­tary and to ac­cuse Rus­sia of try­ing to cover up the atroc­ity.

Four se­nior White House of­fi­cials cited spy satel­lite in­tel­li­gence, sam­ples from vic­tims of the sarin gas at­tack, so­cial me­dia re­port­ing and other ev­i­dence to show that Mr. Assad’s forces bombed the town in north­west­ern Syria with sarin gas mu­ni­tions, a deadly nerve agent. Dozens of civil­ians, in­clud­ing chil­dren, were killed.

The of­fi­cials said they do not have proof that the Rus­sian mil­i­tary had ad­vance knowl­edge of the at­tack, but they said Rus­sian mil­i­tary of­fi­cials have been work­ing closely with the Syr­ian mil­i­tary, in­clud­ing at the Shayrat air base where the Syr­ian Su-22 fixed-wing mil­i­tary plane took off for the at­tack. They also cited the Rus­sian mil­i­tary’s heavy in­volve­ment in Syria for the past two years in that coun­try’s civil war.

Of­fi­cials said per­son­nel “his­tor­i­cally associated” with Syria’s chem­i­cal weapons pro­gram were at the air­field in late March mak­ing prepa­ra­tions for an at­tack in north­ern Syria, and they were present at the air­field again on the day of the at­tack.

They also dis­missed Rus­sian al­le­ga­tions that the at­tack ei­ther was “fab­ri­cated” by op­po­nents of the Assad regime or that the Syr­ian planes hit a chem­i­cal weapons store­house set up by Is­lamist ter­ror­ists in the area.

“I think it’s clear the Rus­sians are try­ing to cover up what hap­pened there. It’s a clear pat­tern of de­flect­ing blame,” said one se­nior of­fi­cial. “We are very con­fi­dent that ter­ror­ists or other non­state ac­tors did not com­mit this at­tack.”

In re­sponse to the chem­i­cal at­tack, Mr. Trump last week or­dered U.S. forces to fire 59 Tom­a­hawk mis­siles at the Syr­ian air base, de­stroy­ing many of its planes and re­fu­el­ing ca­pa­bil­ity.

One of­fi­cial said the U.S. has held talks with Rus­sian of­fi­cials at sev­eral lev­els of gov­ern­ment about the chem­i­cal at­tack, and that the U.S. has de­manded that Rus­sia “stop the mis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign” and pres­sure its ally Syria to stop us­ing weapons of mass de­struc­tion.

The White House of­fi­cials said the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment, which had scored re­cent vic­to­ries in key cities such as Aleppo, was los­ing ground in the re­gion of the at­tack to op­po­si­tion forces who had launched an of­fen­sive in mid-March.

“They were los­ing in a par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant area. That’s what drove it,” the of­fi­cial said of the sarin gas at­tack.

Mr. Mat­tis largely avoided a dis­cus­sion of Rus­sia’s in­volve­ment but told re­porters that the de­ci­sion to strike the al Shayrat air base in west­ern Syria “was in no way a har­bin­ger of a change in our cam­paign” against Is­lamic State in the coun­try.

Mr. Mat­tis said the missile strike was the only course of ac­tion U.S. com­man­ders could take to hold the Assad regime ac­count­able for its ac­tions in Idlib prov­ince, while main­tain­ing a safe dis­tance from in­volve­ment in Syria’s civil war.

“We know we could not stand pas­sive on this,” he said. But Mr. Mat­tis and other mil­i­tary strate­gists inside the ad­min­is­tra­tion knew they could not go “full-bore” at Mr. Assad and the con­flict his regime is wag­ing in Syria, Mr. Mat­tis added.

“We had to make a very, very clear state­ment” to the Assad regime and its al­lies in Rus­sia and Iran that use of chem­i­cal weapons would not be tol­er­ated by the U.S. or its in­ter­na­tional al­lies, the Pen­tagon chief said.

When asked whether the strikes sent the right mes­sage to the Assad regime over its use of chem­i­cal weapons, Mr. Mat­tis replied: “I trust he re­grets it now.”

Rus­sia’s gen­eral staff said the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment is will­ing to let in­ter­na­tional experts ex­am­ine its mil­i­tary base for signs of chem­i­cal weapons.

Col. Gen. Sergei Rud­skoy of the Rus­sian gen­eral staff said in tele­vised remarks on Tues­day that the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment is ready to let in­ter­na­tional experts ex­am­ine the base and that Rus­sia will pro­vide se­cu­rity for them.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Sec­re­tary of State Rex W. Tiller­son de­liv­ered an ul­ti­ma­tum to lead­ers in Moscow Tues­day, in which he said that the Rus­sians must ei­ther get on­board against Syr­ian leader Bashar Assad or else em­brace Mr. Assad and mil­i­tant groups like Iran’s Hezbol­lah.

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