U.S. and Russia at Odds Over Syria

Francesca Chambers — Mail Online April 12, 2017

Strained relations evident in the meeting between Tillerson and Lavrov. Click to enlarge

Strained relations evident in the meeting between Tillerson and Lavrov. Click to enlarge

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is leaving Moscow empty-handed following two hours of frosty talks with Vladimir Putin – without even a snapshot with the Russian president to show for it.

Instead he got a public lecture on America’s past actions in the Middle East from Putin’s foreign minister, and reminded of Sean Spicer’s Hitler gaffe by a Russian reporter.

And he could not even get agreement that Bashar al-Assad’s used chemical weapons, with the Kremlin insisting that the Syrian dictator did not gas his own people and the Trump official asserting that he did.

At a joint news conference after the meeting Putin’s foreign minister demanded evidence of the assault – and of Russian’s meddling in the American election – as he reminded the world of the United States’ rocky record with regime changes, using Iraq and Libya as examples.

The deepening split between the Trump administration and the government the Republican politician had been accused of colluding with to win his election was on full display Wednesday as the diplomats made a host of conflicting claims about current affairs.

Tillerson frankly told reporters that US-Russia relations were at a ‘low point’ while he issued a Cold War-style warning that the nuclear powers could not have have a bitter relationship.

‘There is a low level of trust between our two countries,’ Tillerson said, repeating an observation that Putin made earlier in the day.

Putin had met with Tillerson just before his departure from Moscow after yo-yoing the American diplomat around for days.

But it was behind closed doors and the Kremlin did not release a photograph of the two meeting.

The talk came hours after Sergey Lavrov, Putin’s foreign minister, accused the US of launching an ‘unlawful attack’ on Syria that was ‘extremely worrying.’

Putin separately said that trust between the two countries had eroded since last week’s air assault, casting a cloud over Washington’s ambitions to coordinate militarily with Russia in Iraq to defeat ISIS.

The press conference did little to redeem the trip. It started with a Russian reporter mentioning Sean Spicer’s gaffe that Hitler did not gas his own people, and descended into a lengthy airing of past and present grievances by Lavrov, with virtually zero agreement on anything.

Tillerson had also hoped to entice Russia into dropping out of its alliance with Syria.

It was clear at the end of the meetings that the Kremlin had no intention of changing its position on the chemical attack that it continued to claim was the work of extremists.

‘We insist on an objective investigation into what happened,’ Lavrov said.

On that, he and Tillerson agreed. They confirmed that they are both in favor of a political resolution to the leadership crisis in Syria, as well. They could not come to similar conclusions on other issues that dominated the afternoon discussion such as the election meddling.

‘That is fairly well-established – in the United States,’ Tillerson stated. ‘It is a serious issue. It’s one that we know is serious enough to attract additional sanctions.’

Continuing, he said, ‘We are mindful of the seriousness of that particular interference in our election. And I am sure that Russia is mindful of it as well.’

Lavrov disputed the claim, telling the reporter who asked about it, ‘nobody has shown us anything.’

On Friday morning the United States Navy launched 59 cruise missiles on behalf of Al Qaeda. Click to enlarge

On Friday morning the United States Navy launched 59 cruise missiles on behalf of Al Qaeda. Click to enlarge

‘I have to say once again that not a single fact has been confirmed. Who saw those facts? We don’t know.’

In his biggest blow to Tillerson in their war of words Lavrov said Tillerson did not threaten him with sanctions.

‘He didn’t threaten me with anything, actually,’ he said.

A reporter had asked if sanctions had come up in the meeting, to which Tillerson said there would be ‘no change’ in the ones levied on Russia over its incursion into Ukraine. Lavrov indicated in his response that no new ones were threatened in response to the chemical weapons attack that the US has so far been unable to conclude Russia participated in or had knowledge of.

Russia played coy all week about a face-to-face between Tillerson, a former oil executive who Putin once gave friendship award, and the country’s president.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Monday that the foreign leader did not plan to see Tillerson.

Peskov said Wednesday that it was a ‘possibility’ that Putin could join the talks between Tillerson and his foreign minister if the diplomats determined he should

The State Department said Tillerson would ‘of course’ meet with Putin if he was invited – but left the decision up to his hosts.

A meeting was hastily arranged Wednesday as tensions escalated between Washington and the Kremlin over the gas attack last week in Syria.

The United States and Russia have offered differing accounts of the facts on the ground.

Putin claimed Tuesday that his ally, the Syrian president, had been set up.

US officials said they were confident the country’s dictator had gassed his own people. President Donald Trump bombed Syrian forces in retaliation for Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons on civilians, they asserted.

Putin’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said Wednesday that Russia was trying to understand the ‘real intentions’ of the Trump administration following the air assault.

Lavrov 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. ‘We consider it of utmost importance to prevent the risks of replay of similar action in the future.’

His deputy derided the ‘primitiveness and loutishness’ of the Trump administration’s rhetoric.

‘We’ll hope that this doesn’t become the substance of American policy,’ Sergei Ryabkov told Russia’s state-owned RIA news agency. ‘As a whole, the administration’s stance with regards to Syria remains a mystery. Inconsistency is what comes to mind first of all.’

Putin hit Trump over the head, too, in an interview that was broadcast on Russian television moments after Tillerson and Lavrov sat down.

‘One could say that the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military level, has not improved but has rather deteriorated,’ he said.

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.

The American diplomat had previously declared that he wanted a ‘frank exchange’ on the countries’ relations after forcefully branding Russia as ‘complicit’ in Assad’s attack or ‘incompetent.’

Russia was supposed to make sure that Assad’s chemical weapon stockpile had been depleted. It either ignored its responsibilities or was duped by Assad.

‘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.

Tillerson said Tuesday as he left Europe for Russia that he hoped to persuade Putin’s government that Assad was an ‘unreliable partner’ following the sarin attack that the US has verified was carried out by the Syrian government.

‘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.

Trump said later that  Putin is backing an ‘evil person’ in Syria.

Assad is ‘an animal,’ he told Fox Business, and Putin’s support for him is ‘very bad for Russia’.

It is also ‘very bad for mankind,’ he said.

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