Russia Bashes Trump as Syria Gas Attack Hits Detente Hopes

  • Putin spokesman criticizes U.S. for ‘hasty’ blaming of Assad
  • Russia, U.S. also in conflict over Ukraine, Afghanistan, Libya

Trump Calls Syria Chemical Attack 'So Horrific'

Russia accused President Donald Trump of rushing to judgement after an apparent poison-gas attack in Syria prompted the harshest U.S. criticism of the Kremlin under the new administration, further denting hopes of a breakthrough in relations.

“We would welcome a more considered approach,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on a conference call Thursday. “This is a dangerous and heinous crime but it’s hasty to put labels on it.”

The U.S. blamed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the attack in the northwestern province of Idlib that killed more than 70 people, and criticized Russia for backing Assad in pointing the finger at rebels opposed to his rule. Trump said the “heinous actions by the Assad regime” had changed his thinking on the civil war and went “beyond red lines.”

Until recently, Syria had seemed the one area where Putin and Trump were certain to find common ground. Trump during his election campaign had pledged to cooperate with Russia in fighting terrorism and top officials have made clear that the U.S. no longer seeks regime change in Syria.

But the U.S. military is reluctant to join forces with Russia in Syria and the latest events in the war-torn country place the former Cold War rivals as far apart as they were during Barack Obama’s presidency, even if Trump is likely to avoid direct conflict.

“Some people believed in a miracle,” Sergei Karaganov, a former Putin foreign policy adviser, said of the hope for a new page in U.S.-Russia relations under Trump. “It didn’t happen.”

Tillerson Talks

Putin is expected to meet U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his first visit to Russia as the Trump administration’s top diplomat next week, with Syria high on the agenda. The U.S. is also at odds with the Kremlin over Russia’s contacts with the Taliban in Afghanistan, its deepening involvement in rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine and actions in Libya seen as undermining the United Nations-backed government.

The use of chemical weapons by Syria would violate an accord brokered by Obama and Putin for the Assad government to surrender its stockpiles after an August 2013 sarin-gas attack killed more than 1,000 people in a Damascus suburb.

Russia’s in a very difficult position over the gas attack, according to Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Moscow-based research group set up by the Kremlin. “To try and brush it under the carpet is the worst option because it will turn into a major obstacle for our cooperation with the U.S. in any sphere and will destroy trust with the new administration,” he said.

‘Unacceptable’ Resolution

Russia denounced as “categorically unacceptable” a UN Security Council resolution condemning the attack that was proposed by the U.S, the U.K. and France. It blamed Tuesday’s deadly incident on rebels, saying that the Syrian air force hit an ammunition depot where chemical weapons were stored.

Putin discussed Syria by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, and stressed the “unacceptability” of airing “unfounded accusations” without a thorough and impartial international investigation, according to an emailed Kremlin statement.

The Security Council debate Wednesday was a throwback to the worst U.S.-Russia tensions witnessed under Obama. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley stood at her desk to show diplomats photos of dying children gasping for air, and accused Russia of pushing a “false narrative” of what happened in Syria.

While Assad has no reason to carry out such an attack, because it only makes his life harder, it’s possible that elements in the regime were responsible, according to Karaganov, the ex-Kremlin adviser. “We just don’t know. It could be true, there are bandits on all sides,” he said.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Wednesday criticized the international reaction to the attack, which she said was based on “fake” information about the involvement of Assad forces.

Assad’s Allies

The goal is to sabotage Russian efforts to promote a peace settlement in Syria -- already in difficulty after a cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey has started to collapse -- as well as revive efforts to oust Assad, she said.

Assad’s involvement in the attack, if proven, would have consequences for Russia’s relationship with the Syrian president, said Kortunov, the head of the Kremlin-founded research group. Russia and Iran are Assad’s main allies and their military support enabled him to reverse the course of the six-year war in his favor.

The most likely scenario, though, may be increased confrontation with the U.S.

“Unfortunately we have to deal with the U.S. as it is -- with its own interests that it tries to impose on the rest of the world,” said Karaganov. “So we’ll have to be ready to strictly contain them if they try again to go beyond the realm of polite behavior.”

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