Russia gets US ultimatum over support for Assad regime
LUCCA (Italy), 18 days ago
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued an ultimatum to Russia on Tuesday: Side with the US and like-minded countries on Syria, or embrace Iran, militant group Hezbollah and embattled Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
Stating that Assad’s reign in Syria was “coming to an end,” Tillerson warned that Russia was at risk of becoming irrelevant in the Middle East by continuing to support him.
His remarks, five days after the US carried out missile strikes in retaliation for a chemical attack for which Washington and its allies blamed Assad, illustrated the extent to which the Trump administration has, in just one week, substantially rethought its approach to Syria’s future, reported The New York Times.
Meanwhile, the White House accused Russia of engaging in a cover-up of the Syrian government’s role in a chemical weapons attack last week, saying that US 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 FBI are investigating potential ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
As he embarked on a trip to Moscow following urgent meetings in Italy with top diplomats, Tillerson said it was unclear whether Russia had failed to take seriously its obligation to rid Syria of chemical weapons, or had merely been incompetent, reported AP.
But he said the distinction “doesn’t much matter to the dead.” He said: “We cannot let this happen again.”
Speaking to reporters, he said: “We want to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people. Russia can be a part of that future and play an important role. Or Russia can maintain its alliance with this group, which we believe is not going to serve Russia’s interests longer term.”
He added: “It is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end … 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.”
Tillerson spoke after a meeting of the "like-minded" countries was hastily arranged on the sidelines of the summit of the Group of Seven industrialized economies in Italy, days after the US for the first time launched strikes against Assad's forces.
A key focus since the chemical attack has been on increasing pressure on Russia, Assad's strongest ally, which has used its own military to keep Assad in power.
The US and others have said Russia bears responsibility for the deaths of civilians at the hands of Assad given Moscow's role in guaranteeing the 2013 deal in which Assad was supposed to have given up his chemical weapons arsenal, stated the AP report.
At Tuesday's meeting in the walled Tuscan city of Lucca, the G-7 countries were joined by diplomats from Muslim-majority nations including Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE.
The inclusion of those countries is important because the US strategy for Syria involves enlisting help from Mideast nations to ensure security and stability in Syria after the Islamic State group is vanquished.
Before the April 4 chemical attack, the administration appeared resigned to letting Assad’s government, backed by Russia and Iran, continue gaining the upper hand in a six-year-long civil war that has claimed at least 400,000 lives.
Even after the attack, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said the administration would look “rather silly not acknowledging the political realities” of Assad’s grip on power.
But then, late last week, Trump declared that efforts to change Assad’s behavior had “failed very dramatically.”
Tillerson said that Assad could no longer remain in office, and that “steps are underway” for an international effort to remove him.
UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has proposed hitting Russia with new international sanctions amid soaring tensions in the wake of the deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria.
Arriving at the summit, Johnson said Trump's decision to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against the Syrian airbase believed to be the source of the Idlib chemical weapons attack had “changed the game”, creating a platform from which the West could lever new concessions from Moscow, reported The Independent.
But the new diplomatic push comes amid threats of further military action in Syria from the US, Russia and Iran, which also has forces in play backing the Assad regime.
The first thing Johnson did on reaching the G7 summit venue was head into an hour-long bilateral meeting with Mr Tillerson, with whose team the UK Government has been in close contact since Trump launched US missiles at the Shayrat airfield.
Setting out his position towards Russia on the way in, Johnson said: “They have a choice. That choice is to stick like glue to the Assad regime - that toxic regime which poisons its own people and is indeed poisoning the reputation of Russia - or to work with the rest of world to find a political solution.”
With other foreign diplomats still arriving in Lucca, he said: “We will be discussing the possibility of further sanctions, certainly on some of the Syrian military figures and indeed on some of the Russian military figures, who have been involved in coordinating the Syrian military efforts and are thereby contaminated by the appalling behaviour of the Assad regime."
On Tuesday, Tillerson seemed close to embracing the very policy the Obama administration had decided on: that Assad would eventually have to cede power, though the timeline remains unclear.
The remarks at a Group of 7 foreign ministers’ meeting here in the Tuscany region of Italy came just before Tillerson flew to Moscow to meet with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin.
Putin, at an appearance with President Sergio Mattarella of Italy, said on Tuesday that the chemical attack was “worth investigating thoroughly,” and he said Russia would formally ask the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for an inquiry.
But Putin showed no signs of backing away from Assad. He likened the accusations against the Assad government - made by Britain, France and other allies, along with the Trump administration - to the flawed intelligence that President George W. Bush’s administration cited in 2003 to justify the invasion of Iraq.
Putin insisted that the chemical attack had stemmed from anti-Assad rebel units.
Russia’s increasingly close alliance with Assad has allowed it to expand its military presence in the Middle East and has contributed to what is widely viewed as a renewed relevance in the region.