© AFP/File | US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson claims Russia has been “incompetent and perhaps they’ve just simply been outmaneuvered by the Syrians”
WASHINGTON (AFP) – The United States stepped up pressure Sunday on Russia to rein in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, warning that any further chemical attacks would be “very damaging” to their relationship and suggesting there can be no peace in Syria while Assad remains in power.
President Donald Trump’s top advisers took to Sunday television talk shows to set the stage for a diplomatic confrontation in Moscow this week when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
It will be their first face-to-face encounter since US cruise missiles slammed into a Syrian air base early Friday Damascus time in retaliation for a suspected sarin gas attack on April 4 that killed at least 87 civilians in Syria’s northern Idlib province.
Tillerson said the chemical attack had been preceded by two others in March.
US officials said the presence of Russian advisers at the airfield used to launch the attack raised questions about how they could not have known.
Tillerson stopped short of accusing the Russians of complicity. “But clearly they’ve been incompetent and perhaps they’ve just simply been outmaneuvered by the Syrians,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
– Damage to relations –
If Syria carries out any further chemical attacks, “that is going to be clearly very damaging to US-Russian relations,” Tillerson warned.
“I do not believe that the Russians want to have worsening relationships with the US, but it’s going to take a lot of discussion and a lot of dialogue to better understand what is the relationship that Russia wishes to have with the US.”
He said he would call on Russia “to fulfill the obligation it made to the international community when it agreed to be the guarantor of the elimination of the chemical weapons, and why Russia has not been able to achieve that is unclear to me.”
Moscow has sought to deflect blame from its long-time ally Assad over the incident and says Syrian jets struck a rebel arms depot where “toxic substances” were being put inside bombs.
The US retaliatory strike marked the first time the United States has intervened directly in the Syrian civil war against Assad’s Russian- and Iranian-backed regime, raising questions about Washington’s next steps.
– ‘Enough is enough’ –
“The entire administration was in agreement that this was something that had to be done,” Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“This was something that needed to tell Assad, ‘Enough is enough.’ And this is something to let Russia know, ‘You know what? We’re not going to have you cover for this regime anymore.'”
Just days before the chemical attack, Haley and Tillerson both had indicated that removing Assad from power was no longer a US priority.
But Haley suggested there has been a shift in US thinking.
“In no way do we look at peace happening in that area with Iranian influence. In no way do we see peace in that area with Russia covering up for Assad. In no way do we see peace in that area with Assad as the head of the Syrian government.”
Tillerson, on the other hand, stressed that the air strike had the limited aim of deterring further use of chemical weapons.
“Other than that, there is no change to our military posture,” he said.
While he did not rule out the future use of military force, he said the US administration was mindful of “the lessons of what went wrong in Libya when you choose that pathway of regime change.”
“Any time you go in and have a violent change at the top, it is very difficult to create the conditions for stability, longer-term,” he said.
– First priority –
Both Tillerson and H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, said defeating the Islamic State group remained the administration’s first priority, with the strategy for stabilizing Syria a longer-term political effort that could involve Russia.
“It’s very difficult to understand how a political solution could result from the continuation from the Assad regime,” McMaster said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“We are not saying that we are the ones who are going to effect that change. (What) we are saying is, other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions,” he said.
“This is a great opportunity for the Russian leadership to reevaluate what they are doing,” he said, “why they are supporting a regime that is committing mass murder against its own people. So Russia could be part of the solution. Right now I think everyone in the world (sees) Russia as part of the problem.”
Tags: Assad, Bashar al-Assad, chemical weapons, H.R. McMaster, Islamic state, Lavrov, Putin, Russian leadership, Russians incompetent, Russians simply outmaneuvered by the Syrians, U.S., US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson