The US president Donald Trump slammed Russia for backing Assad regime and covering up its crimes in Syria while calling Assad an animal, in a new rift in the relationship between the two powers.
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.
Assad is an animal
Trump made his remarks in an interview broadcast early on Wednesday ahead of Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow.
The US has repeatedly accused Moscow of supporting Assad, claiming that Russia bears part of the responsibility for his actions.
“Putin is backing a person that is truly an evil person […] I think it’s very bad for Russia, I think it’s very bad for mankind, it’s very bad for this world,” Trump said.
However, Trump said that his administration has no intention to intervene directly in Syria,
“Are we going to get involved in Syria? No,” Trump told TV host Maria Bartiromo during an interview on FOX Business.
“But if I see them using gas…. when you drop gas or bombs or barrel bombs — massive barrels with dynamite — and drop it right in the middle of a group of people … you see kids with no arms, no legs, no face. He is an animal,” he added.
He claimed that even “some of the worst tyrants in the world don’t use the kind of gas they use.”
Trump says he immediately called US Defense Secretary James Mattis after reports emerged about the incident in Idlib province.
“I said ‘What can we do?’ And they came back with a number of different alternatives. … We hit them very hard,” he said.
More fake attacks expected
Russia has declined Assad regime’s responsibility on the chemical attack in Idlib, saying that it was a conspiracy against Assad regime to end its role, expecting more attacks to happen in the near future.
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.
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.