Russia scoffs at US ultimatum over its support to Al Assad
RELATIONS WITH WASHINGTON ARE AT THEIR WORST SINCE COLD WAR ENDED — MOSCOW
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Moscow yesterday with an ultimatum for Russia: Side with the US and likeminded countries on Syria, or embrace Iran, terror group Hezbollah and embattled Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad.
It wasn’t clear what the punishment would be for a Russian government that has used its military might to help Al Assad and his array of allies score a series of battlefield successes in their six-year war with Syrian opposition groups.
Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately showed that he wouldn’t back down, saying Russia knew about planned “provocations” to blame Syria’s government for using chemical weapons. He said the UN should first investigate the attack.
“It reminds me of the events in 2003 when US envoys to the Security Council were demonstrating what they said were chemical weapons found in Iraq,” Putin told reporters yesterday. “We have seen it all already.” Relations between Russia and the US are at “their worst” since the Cold War ended, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said yesterday.
Tillerson is in the Russian capital to meet with Russian officials about the Syria civil war. It is the first official trip to Russia by a member of President Donald Trump’s cabinet. It’s unclear if Putin and Tillerson will meet.
Before heading to Russia, Tillerson told reporters that Moscow had either failed to take seriously its obligation to rid Syria of chemical weapons, or had been incompetent. But, he said, the distinction “doesn’t much matter to the dead.”
Three-way talks are planned soon in Moscow between the foreign ministers of Russia, Syria and Iran, Russian foreign ministry’s spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson carried a unified message from world powers to Moscow yesterday, denouncing Russian support for Syria and taking up America’s traditional role as leader of the West on behalf of Donald Trump’s administration.
Tillerson met foreign ministers from the Group of Seven advanced economies in Italy. They were joined by their counterparts from Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar for a special meeting on Syria. Syria has been catapulted to the top of the international agenda since a poison gas attack killed 87 people a week ago.
Western countries blame Syrian President Bashar AlAssad for the gas attack, and Trump responded by firing cruise missiles at a Syrian air base. That has put his administration in open dispute with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has stood firmly by Moscow’s ally Al Assad, who denies blame.
Tillerson said Russia must choose between aligning itself with the US and like-minded countries or embracing Al Assad, Iran and the militant group Hezbollah
“It is clear to us the reign of the Al Assad family is coming to an end,” Tillerson told reporters before departing the G7 meeting for Moscow. “We hope that the Russian government concludes that they have aligned themselves with an unreliable partner in Bashar Al Assad.”
He said Russia had failed in its role as sponsor of a 2013 deal under which Al Assad promised to give up his chemical arsenal.
“These agreements stipulated Russia as the guarantor of a Syria free of chemical weapons,” Tillerson said.
“It is unclear whether Russia failed to take this obligation seriously and whether Russia has been incompetent. But this distinction doesn’t much matter to the dead. We can’t let this happen again.”
In a statement released before Tillerson was due to arrive, Russia said it hoped its meetings with him would be productive but it was concerned about a number of areas of US policy, including on North Korea, Libya and Yemen as well as Syria.
The secretary of state’s role as messenger for a united G7 position is a turning point for Trump, who in the past alarmed allies by voicing scepticism about the value of US support for traditional friends, while calling for closer ties with Moscow.
Tillerson himself is a former boss of the ExxonMobil oil company which has gigantic projects in Russia. He was awarded Russia’s “Order of Friendship” by Putin in 2013.
He is due to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow today.
On Monday, Trump discussed Syria by telephone with British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
No sanctions now
“I think we have to show a united position and that in these negotiations we should do all we can to get Russia out of Al Assad’s corner, at least to the point that they are ready to participate in finding a political solution,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said on Monday.
The G7 group of nations has failed to reach an agreement over threatening new sanctions against Russia and Syria over last week’s chemical attack.
Sanctions against Russia and Syria will not be put in place until after an investigation into the chemical attack, British government sources said.