The Dallas Morning News
Russia covering up, U.S. asserts
White House rejects Moscow’s claim that rebels used nerve gas
WASHINGTON — The White House accused the Russian government on Tuesday of engaging in a cover-up of the chemical weapons attack in Syria last week, saying U.S. intelligence had confirmed that the Assad government used sarin gas on its own people.
A four-page report by the National Security Council contains declassified U.S. intelligence on the attack and a rebuttal of Moscow’s claim that insurgents unleashed the gas to frame the Syrian government. The White House said the Syrian and Russian governments had released “false narratives” to mislead the world.
The document also urges international condemnation
of Syria’s use of chemical weapons and harshly criticizes Russia for “shielding” an ally that has used weapons of mass destruction.
The release of the document at a White House briefing Tuesday marked a striking shift by President Donald Trump, who entered office praising President Vladimir Putin of Russia. The accusations came as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was preparing for meetings in Moscow on Wednesday, and as Congress and the FBI are investigating potential ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
“It’s no question that Russia is isolated,” said White House press secretary Sean Spicer. He said only Moscow and what he described as the “failed states” of Syria, North Korea and Iran disputed Damascus’ responsibility.
At the Kremlin on Tuesday, Putin denounced the U.S. accusations, saying he would request a formal examination of the attack by the United Nations and the international community. Putin compared the administration’s arguments to the erroneous intelligence findings on weapons of mass destruction that drew the United States into war with Iraq in 2003.
“To my mind, this strongly resembles what happened in 2003, when representatives of the United States showed in the Security Council what was supposed to be chemical weapons found in Iraq,” Putin said after a meeting with President Sergio Mattarella of Italy.
“A military campaign in Iraq ensued, and it ended in devastation of the country, growth of the terror threat and emergence of ISIL on the international scene,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
Trump on Tuesday defended the missile strikes after the chemical attack, even as he declared that United States involvement in Syria would be limited.
“We’re not going into Syria,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News. “What I did should have been done by the Obama administration a long time before I did it, and you would have had a much better — I think Syria would have been a lot better off right now than it has been.”
That was a reversal from his position in 2013, when Trump implored President Barack Obama not to attack Syria, arguing there was “no upside and tremendous downside.”
Senior White House officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Russia’s goal was to cover up the Syrian government’s culpability for the chemical attack. They said that the Syrian government, under pressure from opposition forces around the country and lacking sufficient troops to respond, used the lethal nerve agent sarin to target rebels who were threatening governmentheld territory.
The tense back-and-forth between Washington and Moscow unfolded as Tillerson, in Italy on Tuesday, said that President Bashar Assad’s reign in Syria was “coming to an end” and warned that Russia was at risk of rendering itself irrelevant in the Middle East by continuing to support him.
He said Russia was either incompetent or inattentive in its failure to secure and destroy Assad’s chemical weapon stockpiles.
“We do not want the regime’s uncontrolled stockpile of chemical weapons to fall into the hands of ISIS or other terrorist groups who could … attack the United States or our allies,” he said, referring to the Islamic State. “Nor can we accept the normalization of the use of chemical weapons by other actors or countries in Syria or elsewhere.”
Tillerson said the U.S. priority in Syria and Iraq “remains the defeat of ISIS,” and he said Assad does not have a place in Syria’s future.
“I think it is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end,” Tillerson said. “But the question of how that ends, and the transition itself could be very important, in our view, to the durability, the stability inside of a unified Syria.”
Much of the White House report was devoted to rebutting Russia’s claim that the chemical attack last week, which it said killed as many as 100 people, including “many children,” was actually the result of a Syrian airstrike against a terrorist depot in the town of Khan Sheikhoun that contained chemical weapons. The report cited a video and commercial satellite imagery that showed that the chemical weapon had landed in the middle of a road, not at a weapons facility.
On Tuesday, Putin repeated his claim that opposition forces had essentially tried to frame the Syrian government by placing chemical weapons in civilian areas and blaming Assad’s forces.
“We have information from various sources that similar provocations — and I have no other word for that — are being prepared in other regions of Syria, including southern suburbs of Damascus, where they intend to plant certain substance again and accuse official Syrian authorities of using it,” Putin said.
In seeking to rebut Russia’s claim, the report went into detail about the carnage last week. It said social media reports placed the start of the attack at 6:55 a.m. in Khan Sheikhoun. The U.S. assessment is that Su-22 bombers that took off from the Shayrat airfield delivered the chemical agent.