US steps up pressure on Syria ahead of Russia talks

2017-04-10 05:15
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump listen to a speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida. (Alex Brandon, AP)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump listen to a speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida. (Alex Brandon, AP)

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Washington - The United States on Sunday stepped up pressure on Russia to reign in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, warning that any further chemical attacks would be "very damaging" to their relationship and suggesting there could be no peace in Syria while Assad remained in power.

President Donald Trump's top advisers took to television talk shows to set the stage for a diplomatic confrontation in Moscow this week when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

It will be their first face-to-face encounter since US cruise missiles slammed into a Syrian air base early on Friday in retaliation for a suspected sarin gas attack on April 4 that killed at least 87 civilians in Syria's northern Idlib province.

Chemical attacks

Tillerson said the chemical attack had been preceded by two others in March.

US officials said the presence of Russian advisers at the airfield used to launch the attack raised questions about how they could not have known.

Tillerson stopped short of accusing the Russians of complicity. "But clearly they've been incompetent and perhaps they've just simply been outmanoeuvred by the Syrians," he said.

If Syria carries out any further chemical attacks, "that is going to be clearly very damaging to US-Russian relations," Tillerson warned.

"I do not believe that the Russians want to have worsening relationships with the US, but it's going to take a lot of discussion and a lot of dialogue to better understand what is the relationship that Russia wishes to have with the US".

He said he would call on Russia "to fulfill the obligation it made to the international community when it agreed to be the guarantor of the elimination of the chemical weapons and why Russia has not been able to achieve that is unclear to me".

Moscow has sought to deflect blame from its long-time ally Assad over the incident and says Syrian jets struck a rebel arms depot where "toxic substances" were being put inside bombs.

Shift in US thinking

The US retaliatory strike marked the first time the United States has intervened directly in the Syrian civil war against Assad's Russian- and Iranian-backed regime, raising questions about Washington's next steps.

"The entire administration was in agreement that this was something that had to be done," said Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations.

"This was something that needed to tell Assad, 'Enough is enough.' And this is something to let Russia know, 'You know what? We're not going to have you cover for this regime anymore".

Just days before the chemical attack, Haley and Tillerson both had indicated that removing Assad from power was no longer a US priority.

But Haley suggested there has been a shift in US thinking.

"In no way do we look at peace happening in that area with Iranian influence. In no way do we see peace in that area with Russia covering up for Assad. In no way do we see peace in that area with Assad as the head of the Syrian government".

Tillerson, on the other hand, stressed that the air strike had the limited aim of deterring further use of chemical weapons.

"Other than that, there is no change to our military posture," he said.

Political effort

While he did not rule out the future use of military force, he said the US administration was mindful of "the lessons of what went wrong in Libya when you choose that pathway of regime change.

"Any time you go in and have a violent change at the top, it is very difficult to create the conditions for stability, longer-term," he said.

Both Tillerson and HR McMaster, Trump's national security adviser, said defeating the Islamic State group remained the administration's first priority, with the strategy for stabilising Syria a longer-term political effort that could involve Russia.

"It's very difficult to understand how a political solution could result from the continuation from the Assad regime," said McMaster.

"We are not saying that we are the ones who are going to effect that change. (What) we are saying is, other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions," he said.


Read more on:    bashar al-assad  |  donald trump  |  rex tillerson  |  syria  |  russia  |  us  |  syria conflict

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