Russia’s Foreign Minister has accused the US of launching an ‘unlawful attack’ on Syria, as talks with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson got off to a frosty start.
Sergey Lavrov said Russia was trying to understand the ‘real intentions’ of the Trump administration following the attack on Bashar al-Assad’s forces, in retaliation to the Syrian President’s use of chemical weapons on civilians.
He said Moscow has lots of questions about the Trump administration’s ‘very ambiguous’ and ‘contradictory’ ideas.
‘We have seen very alarming actions recently with an unlawful attack against Syria,’ he said.
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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomes US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson before their meeting in Moscow
Mr Lavrov told his US counterpart (pictured shaking hands) today that Moscow was hoping to understand the ‘real intentions’ of the United States as the two met amid tensions over Syria
Lavrov ushers Tillerson away to begin the talks following their handshakes for the cameras
The two men take a walk down a corridor prior to their talks in Moscow over the crisis in Syria
A huge presence of media cameras hovers over the pair as they speak face-to-face, alongside other diplomats
‘We consider it of utmost importance to prevent the risks of replay of similar action in the future.’
It was an ominous opening to Tillerson’s visit – the first in Moscow by a Trump Cabinet official.
Tillerson conceded the U.S. and Russia had ‘sharp differences’ that have obstructed cooperation but voiced optimism that their talks could narrow those differences
‘We both have agreed our lines of communication shall always remain open,’ he said.
WHO IS SERGEY LAVROV?
- Lavrov has served as Russia’s Foreign Minister since 2004
- His thirteen years of experience entirely contrast with Tillerson’s three months in the Secretary of State role
- Prior to that, Lavrov was Permanent Representative of Russia to the United Nations for 10 years
- He began his diplomatic career in Sri Lanka
- Lavrov previously clashed with George W. Bush’s secretary of state, Colin Powell, over foreign influence in Ukraine
- He speaks five different languages
- Lavrov is a well-known lover of scotch and cigarettes
- David Wade, Chief of Staff for another ex-Secretary of State, John Kerry, said: ‘He’s charismatic, very funny, worldly, and deviously brilliant’
The Secretary of State Rex Tillerson initially declared that he wanted a ‘frank exchange’ on the countries’ relations as he met Lavrov for talks
‘I look forward to a very open, candid and frank exchange so we can better define the US-Russian relationship from this point forward,’ Tillerson said.
Lavrov told his US counterpart today that Moscow was hoping to understand the ‘real intentions’ of the United States as the two met amid tensions over Syria.
‘It is important for us to understand your position and that of the US and the real intentions of the administration,’ Lavrov said at the start of the talks.
Lavrov also subtly mocked Mr Tillerson over the fact that top US State Department positions are unfilled, adding that this makes it hard to have clarity about US positions.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin says Putin may still meet visiting U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that ‘if it is decided’ the Russian president needs to be briefed on the outcome of the Tillerson-Lavrov talks, he will meet them.
Putin’s officials had said on Monday that the foreign leader did not plan to see Tillerson.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday that if an invitation comes, Tillerson will ‘of course’ accept, but it up to the Kremlin to make that offer.
Mr Lavrov listens to his US counterpart (pictured with his back to the camera) as the talks commence
The same conversation is seen from the other side of the table. Tillerson is seeking an ‘open, candid and frank exchange’
President Trump had earlier said Russian President Vladimir Putin is backing an ‘evil person’ in Syria
Earlier, President Trump said Russian President Vladimir Putin is backing an ‘evil person’ in Syria.
Mr Trump said Syrian President Bashar Assad is ‘an animal’. He told Fox Business Network that Mr Putin’s support for Mr Assad is ‘very bad for Russia’.
President Trump said it is also ‘very bad for mankind’.
Vladimir Putin also warned today that Russia-US relations have deteriorated since Donald Trump took office in the wake of the America’s missile strike in Syria.
The Russian President addressed the ‘level of trust’ between Moscow and Washington in an interview transcript released by Kremlin officials.
Tillerson hammered Russia on Tuesday, saying in a statement that Russia had ‘failed in its responsibility’ to locate and destroy Bashar al-Assad’s entire stockpile of chemical weapons.
‘It is unclear whether Russia failed to take this obligation seriously or Russia has been incompetent, but this distinction doesn’t much matter to the dead. We can’t let this happen again,’ Tillerson said.
He told a reporter afterward during a media availability that the US believes that Russia could be persuaded to switch sides now that it knows Assad is an ‘unreliable partner.’
‘Russia has really aligned itself with the Assad regime, the Iranians, and Hizballah. Is that a…long-term alliance that serves Russia’s interest, or would Russia prefer to realign with the United States, with other Western countries and Middle East countries who are seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis?’ Tillerson said.
The US and its allies may already be chipping away at Russia’s resolve.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) will meet with Donald Trump’s chief diplomat after all during his stay in Moscow, a Russian television station has reported
The victims of the sarin gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, Syria, which was the trigger for increased involvement from the US
The US military retaliated by firing more than 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles on Homs airfield, where Syrian dictator Assad launched the chemical weapons
Putin has reportedly changed his mind about seeing Tillerson – a man he once gave a friendship award to – during his visit to Moscow.
RBC, a Russian business broadcasting station, said Tuesday that a Putin-Tillerson face-to-face would happen. It cited two sources connected to Russian’s foreign ministry, according to the Moscow Times.
The White House declined to comment on the matter.
Mark Toner, the State Department’s top spokesman, said Tuesday in response to a question about the possibility of a meeting, that no offer had been made.
‘If there is an invitation for him to meet with Putin, of course, he’ll do so. I think that’s a decision for the Kremlin to make and to announce, and up till now we’ve not seen such an offer extended,’ Toner said. ‘Now, it could come. So as I said…he’s certainly willing to meet with President Putin to discuss all of these issues.’
Tillerson is expected to discuss the White House’s goals of ‘defeating ISIS, and…creating the political environment necessary for the Syrian people to have new leadership’ with Russian officials during his visit.
To meet those ends, the US will need the help of Moscow.
The White House’s top spokesman said Monday that Tillerson will make sure that Russia ‘fully understands’ the situation on the ground in Syria.
He’ll further remind the Kremlin during his visit of the agreement it made with the international community to oversee the elimination of Assad’s chemical stockpile.
Russia offered to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons in 2013, attesting afterward that it did. It obviously failed to live up to that commitment, the US says.
The Assad ally claims that airstrikes on terrorists led to an inadvertent hit on a warehouse storing the toxins that poisoned and killed more than 80 people.
Experts say the explanation is unlikely. The US, UK and other nations have said it was Assad.
‘Getting them back on the same page, first and foremost, would seem the logical step,’ White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said. ‘But secondly, and I guess equally important is to make sure that the areas we can find a commitment to defeat ISIS is something that we share.’
Tillerson flew to Russia from Europe on Tuesday, where he attended meetings with the United States’ allies in the fight against ISIS.
The Kremlin did not say why Putin was avoiding Tillerson – who arrived in Moscow late Tuesday evening – after meeting repeatedly with his predecessor, John Kerry, only that he was not on the president’s schedule
Putin’s plans appeared to change on Tuesday despite Tillerson hammering him on Syria, with a pro-Kremlin station saying the two would meet. He touched down in Moscow after the G-7 meeting in Lucca, Italy
Tillerson (L) and US Ambassador to Russia John Tefft shake hands at a welcome ceremony at Moscow’s airport yesterday. There was no official Russian presence
At his press availability earlier in the day in Lucca, Italy, Tillerson said said the US wants to ‘relieve the suffering of the Syrian people’ and ‘create a future for Syria that is stable and secure.’
‘Russia can be a part of that future and play an important role, or Russia can maintain its alliance with this group, which we believe is not going to serve Russia’s interest longer-term,’ he said. ‘But only Russia can answer that question.
The White House later accused Putin of spreading false information about the chemical weapons attack.
Putin claimed the Assad regime is being framed for the gas attacks and he has intelligence that ‘some kind of substance’ will be used in Damascus again.
‘We have information that a similar provocation is being prepared … in other parts of Syria including in the southern Damascus suburbs where they are planning to again plant some substance and accuse the Syrian authorities of using it,’ Putin said after he was asked about further American missile strikes.
Senior White House officials said Tuesday they are ‘very confident’ that the attack was not committed by non-state actors, however.
‘I think it’s clear that the Russians are trying to cover up what happened,’ one said.
Another White House official at the briefing suggested that Russia was complicit in the sarin gas assault because its troops are embedded with Syria’s.
Tillerson poses for a photo with members of the Italian Air Force before departing Italy en route to Moscow, Russia, at Pisa Military Airport in Italy
Semper fi: A handout photo made available by the US Department of State shows US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson posing for a photo with members of the Marine Security Guard Detachment at the US Embassy in Moscow, Russia
The official would not charge Russia with active involvement in the attack yet noted that the two countries’ militaries have been operating ‘closely’ together for the better part of two years and have a relationship that goes back more than a decade.
‘We do think that it is a question worth asking the Russians about how is it possible that their forces were co-locate with the Syrian forces that planned, prepared and carried out the chemical weapons attack at the same installation and did not have fore knowledge,’ the official said.
The White House held the briefing on Russia’s claims about what happened in Syria ahead of Tillerson’s meetings tomorrow with the Kremlin.
‘This is an opportunity for the Russians to choose to stop the disinformation campaign,’ an official said of Tillerson’s trip.
Putin has continued to deny that Assad’s regime was behind last week’s attack in Idlib which killed 87 and says it will be calling on the United Nations to investigate.
At a news conference on Tuesday he likened last week’s use of chemical weapons to the supposed existence of weapons of mass destruction that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
‘This ended with the country’s destruction, with the growth of the terrorist threat and the appearance of the Islamic State on the international stage, no more, no less.’
Putin confirmed that Russia will urgently ask the global chemical weapons watchdog – the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – to investigate Idlib.
White House officials said Tuesday afternoon that they’d welcome an OPCW review.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary James Mattis said he had personally reviewed the intelligence ‘and there is no doubt the Syrian regime is responsible for the decision to attack and the attack itself’
US officials expressed a ‘very high degree of confidence’ that Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack that Russia had previously claimed was an accident.
The chemicals spread after Syrian forces struck a terrorist warehouse filled with toxins, Putin’s government had previously said.
‘We think that the information is inconsistent with that narrative,’ an official said. ‘We don’t see a building, again, with that chemical residue that we would expect if that Russian narrative was true.’
Spicer said Assad’s actions are worse than Adolf Hitler’s. Even the 1940s Nazi dictator ‘didn’t even sink to … using chemical weapons,’ he said.
One shocked reporter reminded Spicer that Hitler used poison gas to exterminate millions of Jews. Another gamely gave him a chance to sputter through a clarification.
The embarrassing gaffe came as about six million American Jews – and millions more around the world – celebrate Passover.
Hitler primarily used Zyklon B, a powerful cyanide gas, to exterminate Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, priests, political dissidents and other enemies of the state.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday that Assad’s actions are worse than Adolf Hitler’s. Even the 1940s Nazi dictator ‘didn’t even sink to … using chemical weapons,’ he said. One shocked reporter reminded Spicer that Hitler used poison gas to exterminate millions of Jews
Describing that historical horror, Spicer declared that Hitler ‘was not using the gas on his own people.’
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary James Mattis said he had personally reviewed the intelligence ‘and there is no doubt the Syrian regime is responsible for the decision to attack and the attack itself.’
Asked about Russian complicity in the deadly chemical attack, Mattis said the intelligence only supports the current conclusion that the Syrian government is to blame.
‘And beyond that we cannot say right now,’ the general noted. ‘We don’t know anything beyond that.’
Mattis also pledged that the U.S. would not go to war with Russia over Syria.
‘It will not spiral out of control,’ Mattis said. ‘As you know, Secretary Tillerson is in Moscow. We maintain communications with the Russian military and with the diplomatic channels. It will not spiral out of control.’
Mattis explained that keeping peace with the U.S. is in the Kremlin’s interest.
‘I’m confident the Russians will act in their own best interest and there’s nothing in their own best interest to say they want this situation to go out of control,’ he asserted.
TIMELINE OF THE SYRIA CIVIL WAR AND US RESPONSE
The US attack on a Syrian air base came after years of heated debate and deliberation in Washington over intervention in the bloody civil war.
Chemical weapons have killed hundreds of people since the start of the conflict, with the U.N. blaming three attacks on the Syrian government and a fourth on ISIS. One of the worst yet came Tuesday in rebel-held northern Idlib and killed dozens, including women and children.
That attack prompted President Donald Trump, on day 77 of his presidency, to dramatically shift U.S. policy, with the first direct U.S. attack on the Syrian government.
Trump blamed Syrian President Bashar Assad for the attack and called on the international community to join him in trying to end the bloodshed.
A timeline of events in Syria leading up to Tuesday’s attack:
March 2011: Protests erupt in the city of Daraa over security forces’ detention of a group of boys accused of painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of their school. On March 15, a protest is held in Damascus’ Old City. On March 18, security forces open fire on a protest in Daraa, killing four people in what activists regard as the first deaths of the uprising. Demonstrations spread, as does the crackdown by President Bashar Assad’s forces.
April 2011: Security forces raid a sit-in in Syria’s third-largest city, Homs, where thousands of people tried to create the mood of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of protests against Egypt’s autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Aug. 18, 2011: President Barack Obama calls on Assad to resign and orders Syrian government assets frozen.
Summer 2012: Fighting spreads to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its former commercial capital.
August 20, 2012: Obama says the use of chemical weapons would be a ‘red line’ that would change his calculus on intervening in the civil war and have ‘enormous consequences.’
March 19, 2013: The Syrian government and opposition trade accusations over a gas attack that killed some 26 people, including more than a dozen government soldiers, in the town of Khan al-Assal in northern Syria. A U.N. investigation later finds that sarin nerve gas was used, but does not identify a culprit.
August 21, 2013: Hundreds of people suffocate in rebel-held suburbs of the Syrian capital, with many suffering from convulsions, pinpoint pupils, and foaming at the mouth. U.N. investigators visit the sites and determine that ground-to-ground missiles loaded with sarin were fired on civilian areas while residents slept. The U.S. and others blame the Syrian government, the only party to the conflict known to have sarin gas.
Aug. 31, 2013: Obama says he will go to Congress for authorization to carry out punitive strikes against the Syrian government, but appears to lack the necessary support in the legislature.
Sept. 27, 2013: The U.N. Security Council orders Syria to account for and destroy its chemical weapons stockpile, following a surprise agreement between Washington and Moscow, averting U.S. strikes. The Security Council threatens to authorize the use of force in the event of non-compliance.
Oct. 14, 2013: Syria becomes a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, prohibiting it from producing, stockpiling or using chemical weapons.
June 23, 2014: The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says it has removed the last of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons. Syrian opposition officials maintain that the government’s stocks were not fully accounted for, and that it retained supplies.
Sept. 23, 2014: The U.S. launches airstrikes on Islamic State group targets in Syria.
Aug. 7, 2015: The U.N. Security Council authorizes the OPCW and U.N. investigators to probe reports of chemical weapons use in Syria, as reports circulate of repeated chlorine gas attacks by government forces against civilians in opposition-held areas. Chlorine gas, though not as toxic as nerve agents, can be classified as a chemical weapon depending on its use.
Aug. 24, 2016: The joint OPCW-U.N. panel determines the Syrian government twice used helicopters to deploy chlorine gas against its opponents, in civilian areas in the northern Idlib province. A later report holds the government responsible for a third attack. The attacks occurred in 2014 and 2015. The panel also finds that the Islamic State group used mustard gas.
Feb. 28, 2017: Russia, a stalwart ally of the Syrian government, and China veto a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing sanctions against the Syrian government for chemical weapons use.
April 4, 2017: At least 58 people are killed in what doctors say could be a nerve gas attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in the rebel-held Idlib province. Victims show signs of suffocation, convulsions, foaming at the mouth and pupil constriction. Witnesses say the attack was carried out by either Russian or Syrian Sukhoi jets. Moscow and Damascus deny responsibility.
April 4, 2017: President Donald Trump issues a statement saying that the ‘heinous’ actions of Assad’s government are the direct result of Obama administration’s ‘weakness and irresolution.’
April 5, 2017: Trump says Assad’s government has ‘crossed a lot of lines’ with the suspected chemical attack in Syria.
April 6, 2017: The U.S. fired a barrage of cruise missiles into Syria Thursday night in retaliation for this week’s gruesome chemical weapons attack against civilians, U.S. officials said. It was the first direct American assault on the Syrian government and Trump’s most dramatic military order since becoming president. Trump said strike on Syria in the ‘vital national security interest’ of the United States.