Senior White House officials accused Russia of trying to cover up the suspected Syrian chemical attack last week, adding that the U.S. has concluded the Syrian military used banned sarin gas in the assault.
The officials also questioned whether Russia had a role in the attack and suggested it may have known that its ally Syria was planning to use sarin. In a briefing on Tuesday, they said that while there is no U.S. intelligence consensus on whether Russia had advance knowledge of the attack, it seems implausible that Moscow wouldn’t have known, given the close military cooperation between the two countries.
“It’s clear that the Russians are trying to cover up the attack,” said one of the senior White House officials.
The accusations, leveled shortly after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Moscow for high-level talks, were certain to escalate tensions that already had been heightened after the U.S. struck a Syrian air base last week.
President Donald Trump ordered the strike in response to Bashar al-Assad’s suspected deadly chemical weapons attack on April 4, and Mr. Tillerson had ramped up efforts to pry Russia away from its support of the Syrian president.
On Tuesday as Mr. Tillerson was beginning his visit, Mr. Trump took another step certain to aggravate Moscow, signing a Senate ratification of Montenegro’s bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a move stringently opposed by the Kremlin. Going further, Mr. Trump was expected to meet at the White House on Wednesday with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to discuss sanctions against Russia and Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine and Syria, among other issues.
At the same time, the U.S. during a meeting of Western allies in Italy this week demurred on the question of additional sanctions against Russia over Syria, as recommended by U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. The White House said it wanted to see how Mr. Tillerson’s meeting in Russia went.
A big question looming over Mr. Tillerson’s visit is whether he will see Russian President Vladimir Putin. Often, say current and former officials, visiting U.S. diplomats don’t schedule meetings with Mr. Putin, but end up holding “impromptu” sessions at the invitation of the Russian leader.
The chemical attack April 4 killed at least 85 people. Syria has denied using chemical weapons, and Mr. Putin said Tuesday that Russia plans to ask the United Nations to investigate what he said were “false flag” attacks orchestrated by anti-Assad rebels so they could blame the actions on the Syrian regime. He offered no evidence for that view, which he outlined at a news conference as Mr. Tillerson arrived in the country.
The White House dismissed the Russian explanations as baseless disinformation meant to obfuscate Syria’s culpability in the attack.
White House officials said Russian and Syrian forces work side-by-side at the airfield used to launch the attack, indicating Russia may have known what was coming.
“We do think that it is a question worth asking the Russians about: How is it possible that their forces were co-located with the Syrian forces that planned, prepared and carried out this chemical weapons attack at the same installation and did not have foreknowledge?” said one of the officials.
While the White House officials stopped short of accusing Russia of knowing about the attack beforehand, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said later Tuesday that Moscow knew in advance.
“When this information came out, they were so quick to defend,” Ms. Haley said on CNN. “They didn’t look shocked, they didn’t look surprised.”
“They knew what was going on?” CNN reporter Jamie Gangel asked.
“I think that they knew, yes,” Ms. Haley answered.
The White House officials outlined U.S. evidence pointing to the possibility that Russia was involved.
U.S. officials say a Syrian SU-22 warplane dropped one bomb filled with sarin gas on the rebel-held village of Khan Sheikhoun. After the attack, Pentagon officials said they saw a Russian drone flying over the area, then a second Russian-made plane carried out an airstrike on a field hospital where many victims were taken for treatment.
It is unclear if a Russian or Syrian pilot carried out the second attack, White House officials said.
After seeing graphic images of children killed in the attack, Mr. Trump ordered a cruise missile attack Friday on the Shayrat airfield, believed to be home to the pilots who carried out the airstrikes.
The U.S. military launched almost 60 missiles in an attempt to deter Mr. Assad from using chemical weapons again.
The strike didn’t damage the airfield runways or target suspected sarin gas storage sites at the base, making it possible for Syria to keep using the banned chemicals.
White House officials said Syrian personnel associated with the regime’s chemical weapons program were at Shayrat airfield in late March, and on April 4.
On the day of the American cruise missile strikes, U.S. officials warned Russians that an attack on Shayrat airfield was coming, giving them an opportunity to get their personnel at the base to safety.
The U.S. didn’t strike parts of the base where Russians work, an intentional move designed to focus attention on Syria.
White House officials said there was no evidence to back up Russia’s contention that a rebel chemical weapons storage site was hit in the strike. They called on Moscow to stop obfuscating, work with the U.S. and ensure that Syria follows through on its commitment to get rid of all of its chemical weapons, sometimes known as WMDs, or weapons of mass destruction.
“This is an opportunity for the Russians to choose to stop the disinformation campaign…and eliminate WMDs together,” said one of the White House officials.
Mr. Tillerson’s Moscow visit, his first as secretary of state, follows a two-day stop in Italy for a meeting with top officials from the Group of 7 member countries—the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan. Before leaving Italy, he issued a new U.S. demand for the eventual removal of Mr. Assad.
“It is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end,” Mr. Tillerson said after the meeting.
—Julian E. Barnes and Nathan Hodge contributed to this article.
Appeared in the Apr. 12, 2017, print edition as ‘U.S. Accuses Russia of Cover-Up.’
Russia Says attack on Damascus planned and orchestrated by opposition rebels involving chemical weapons would be blamed on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad — Sceptics call Putin’s claims more of Russia’s disinformation campaign
WASHINGTON — The White House accused Russia on Tuesday of engaging in a cover-up of the Syrian government’s role in a chemical weapons attack last week, saying that United States intelligence had confirmed that the Assad regime used sarin gas on its own people.
A four-page report drawn up by the National Security Council contains declassified United States intelligence on the attack and a rebuttal of Moscow’s claim that insurgents unleashed the gas to frame the Syrian government. Instead, the White House asserted that Damascus and Moscow 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 dossier at a White House briefing on Tuesday marked a striking shift by President Trump, who entered office praising President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia but now appears bent on pressuring him. The accusations came as Rex W. Tillerson, the secretary of state, was preparing for meetings in Moscow on Wednesday, and as Congress and the F.B.I. are investigating potential ties between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Russia.
“It’s no question that Russia is isolated,” said Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary. He said only Moscow and what he described as the “failed states” of Syria, North Korea and Iran disputed Damascus’s responsibility.
“This is not exactly a happy-time cocktail party of people you want to be associated with,” Mr. Spicer added. His choice of language in criticizing the Syrian government set off an intense backlash, after he suggested that President Bashar al-Assad was worse than Hitler — without acknowledging that Hitler gassed his own people during the Holocaust.
At the Kremlin on Tuesday, Mr. Putin spoke emphatically against the American accusations, saying he would request a formal examination by the United Nations and the international community and trying to cast doubt on the Trump administration’s conclusions. Mr. Putin compared the White House’s arguments to the erroneous intelligence findings on weapons of mass destruction that drew the United States into war with Iraq in 2003.
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