Russian president Vladimir Putin has renewed his support for the Assad regime, claiming its opponents are planning more false-flag chemical weapon attacks to justify further US missile strikes and political change in Syria.
More than 60 civilians were killed in Syria in a new chemical attack carried out by Assad regime’s air force on the rebel-held Idlib province last week.
In a sharp escalation of the U.S. military role in Syria, two U.S. warships fired dozens of cruise missiles from the eastern Mediterranean Sea at the airbase controlled by Assad regime forces from which the attack as carried out.
Trump ordered the strikes just a day after he pointed the finger at Assad for this week’s chemical attack.
“Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched.”
“Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically,” Trump said on Thursday.
Russia condemned the strikes, saying Washington’s action would “inflict major damage on US-Russia ties”, according to Russian news agencies.
More fake attacks expected
The Russian president said on Tuesday that Russia had information that the United States was planning to launch new missile strikes on Syria and that there were plans to fake chemicals weapons attacks there.
“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 (chemical weapons),” he said, without offering any proof for the assertion.
Putin’s predictions came as US officials provided further details of what they insist was a sarin attack by Bashar al-Assad’s forces against civilians on 4 April and accused Moscow of a cover-up and possible complicity.
The hardening of the Kremlin’s position, and its denial of Assad’s responsibility accelerated a tailspin in US-Russian relations, just as the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, arrived in Moscow for direct talks.
Putin said western and Turkish accusations that Syria’s government dropped the nerve agent that killed dozens of civilians in Idlib earlier this month were comparable to the now-discredited claim that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
“It reminds me of the events in 2003 when US envoys to the security council were demonstrating what they said were chemical weapons found in Iraq,” the president told reporters on Tuesday. “We have seen it all already.”
Putin added that Russia would ask the UN to carry out an investigation into the attack, and accused unnamed western countries of supporting the US strikes in a bid to curry favor with the US president Donald Trump.
Russia has previously said that the latest US attack crossed all red lines threatening to meet any future “aggressions” with force.
“What America waged in an aggression on Syria is a crossing of red lines. From now on we will respond with force to any aggressor or any breach of red lines from whoever it is and America knows our ability to respond well,” the Russian alliance in Syria said.
What will Tillerson’s visit to Moscow bring?
Before leaving the G7 meeting in Italy for Moscow, Tillerson had said the government of Assad was “coming to an end”.
His trip to Russia was once billed as part of a reset in relations between the two nuclear powers but is now entirely overshadowed by their growing differences over the Syrian civil war.
Those tensions looked likely to spread to other issues on the eve of Tillerson’s Kremlin meetings. As the secretary of state arrived in Russia, the Trump administration took unambiguous steps to embrace Nato, despite Trump’s derision of it as a candidate.
The White House scheduled a press conference for the Nato secretary general with Trump on Wednesday when Tillerson will meet his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. More substantively, Trump gave his formal approval to the Senate for Montenegro’s accession to the transatlantic alliance. It was the final American step in raising Montenegro to full membership despite Russia’s vocal opposition.
“It shows Nato remains an open door, and it’s a good time, with Tillerson going to Moscow, for reiterating that message”, said Sue Brown, a US ambassador to Montenegro during Barack Obama’s administration.
“There’s been a lot of speculation and talk about the linkage between the current administration and Russia, and this is an example of the president of the United States saying we’re going to do our own thing.”
The Trump administration, which is under formal investigation in the US over its ties to Moscow, has found itself embroiled in a tense diplomatic standoff.
During his election campaign, Trump emphasized that after taking power his only focus in Syria would be defeating Islamic State, repeatedly signaling that he had little interest in regime change. Last month his spokesman described Assad’s rule as “political reality”.
This policy was changed after the chemical attack and Trump ordered missile strikes in retaliation.
The US has framed those attacks as a specific and contained response to the illegal use of chemical weapons, but it also increased its criticism of Assad and demands for his removal. Tillerson is among those calling for the Syrian president to step down.
“It is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end,” Tillerson told journalists after the G7 summit. “But the question of how that ends and the transition itself could be very important in our view to the durability, the stability inside of a unified Syria.”
He said that Russia had to choose whether to strengthen its alliance with Iran, the militant group Hezbollah and their client and ally Assad, or use its influence to limit civilian suffering.
No sanctions on Russia, but cooperation
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has hoped for some form of explicit support, but the final G7 communique does not mention sanctions in the second day of the meeting.
Italy, which hosted the G7 gathering in Tuscany, said the idea did not win broad support. “There is no consensus at this time for new sanctions as an efficient method to reach our goal,” Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano told reporters.
“There are obviously different opinions, and I am referring to my colleague Boris Johnson, who raised the issue,” he said, adding: “The position of the G7 is very clear. We support the sanctions that have already been introduced.”
Italian officials estimate that sanctions imposed on Russia after its 2014 annexation of Crimea have cost Italy some four billion euros in lost business, and Rome has pushed back on previous attempts to impose fresh penalties on Moscow.
Alfano said the G7 did not want to put Russia in a corner but rather sought a constructive relationship with Moscow.
“We think the Russians have the leverage that is needed to put pressure on [President Bashar al-Assad] and to get him to observe the commitments with regard to the ceasefire,” he said.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault suggested the question was given little attention by Johnson’s counterparts from the United States, Germany, Canada, Italy, France, and Japan. “The question wasn’t mentioned by anyone, except Boris Johnson, but we didn’t talk about it any further,” Ayrault said.
However, speaking later to British television, Johnson said there had been an agreement on support for further sanctions if evidence can be gathered against those involved in last week’s poison gas attack on a rebel Syrian town that killed 87 people.
Johnson said Britain and its European partners would await the outcome of an investigation by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
“There was a very wide measure of an agreement last night that … if we can show complicity by those Russian officers who are helping the Syrian military operation, then they should also be sanctionable as well,” he told the BBC.
Johnson also said there was no evidence that Russia knew of plans for a gas attack.
“Did they know that Assad was going to unleash chemical weapons? We have no evidence for that, we don’t know whether the Russians were involved at all,” Johnson told Sky News.
“It may very well be that they (Russia) have simply been betrayed by their client, by the guy they have been backing.”
The Syrian crisis began as a peaceful demonstration against the injustice in Syria. Assad regime used to fire power and violence against the civilians and led to armed resistance. 450.000 Syrians lost their lives in the past five years according to UN estimates, and more than 12 million have lost their homes.