MOSCOW—U. S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met Wednesday in Moscow, amid a confrontation between the Trump administration and Russia over recent U.S. strikes on Syria and the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In remarks before a closed-door session, Mr. Lavrov appeared to warn Washington not to strike Syria again.
Mr. Lavrov described the U.S. missile attack last week on a Syrian air base as “an unlawful attack against Syria,” adding: “We believe it’s fundamentally important not to let these actions happen again.”
It was unclear whether Mr. Lavrov was referring to the U.S. strike on Friday or to what Russia says were rebel stockpiles of chemical weapons that were hit by Syrian government aircraft several days earlier in a town in Idlib province, killing at least 85 people and exposing hundreds of others to a toxic gas.
The U.S. says that the Assad regime used sarin gas in the April 4 attack on Khan Sheikhoun. On Tuesday, shortly after Mr. Tillerson arrived in Moscow, the White House accused Russia of carrying out a “disinformation campaign” to try to cover up the attack.
Mr. Tillerson, the highest-ranking Trump administration official to travel to Russia, said at the start of Wednesday’s meeting that the visit would be a chance to clarify areas “of sharp difference” and seek ways to narrow them.
While the chief U.S. diplomat was vague on specific policy options, he said he and Mr. Lavrov would also discuss common interests “even when our tactical approaches might be different,” an apparent nod to the military campaign against the extremist group Islamic State.
In his comments before the start of the closed-door talks. Mr. Lavrov accused Washington of offering “ambiguous as well as contradictory” ideas about its stance toward Russia and foreign policy, and knocked Mr. Tillerson for having few officials in place at the State Department.
Overnight in Moscow, the White House announced that President Donald Trump would nominate John Sullivan, a former official in the administration of George W. Bush, to be Mr. Tillerson’s deputy at the State Department, a move The Wall Street Journal reported last month.
It was unclear if Mr. Tillerson would meet Russian President Vladimir Putin during his visit to the Russian capital. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was a possibility, Interfax reported.
Mr. Trump had initially said that he wanted to improve ties with Russia, particularly so they could focus on fighting Islamic State. But expectations for a wider rapprochement had faded even before the chemical attack and the U.S. strike in response, as administration officials have viewed Russian aggression in Ukraine, weapons deployments and other irritants as impediments to wider cooperation.
In an interview transcript released Wednesday, Mr. Putin said Russia’s trust in America has fallen since the new U.S. president had taken office.
“The level of working trust has fallen, especially on a military level. It hasn’t improved, more likely it’s been degraded,” Mr. Putin said.
In an interview set to air on Fox Business Network early Wednesday morning, Mr. Trump said Mr. Putin is backing a person who is “truly an evil person”—a reference to the Syrian president. Mr. Trump also called Mr. Assad “an animal.”
Mr. Tillerson, speaking in Italy on Tuesday, said he wanted Russia to back away from its support of Mr. Assad. He said Russia must choose between the U.S. and other Western countries or the Assad regime, Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese military and political movement.
“Is that a long-term alliance that serves Russia’s interest?” he said.
—Thomas Grove in Moscow contributed to this article.
Write to Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com
Tags: Assad, chemical weapons, Donald Trump, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Hezbollah, Islamic state, John Sullivan, Khan Sheikhoun, Lavrov, Putin, Russian cover-up, Russian disinformation campaign, Syria, Tillerson, Trump administration, U.S., U.S. missile attack on a Syrian air base