Tillerson talks tough as U.S. faces chilly Russia
Charges traded over Syrian gas attack
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.
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.