Syria Clearly to Blame in Chemical Attack on Town, U.S. Says

  • Trump administration says evidence, intelligence decisive
  • Russia casts doubts that ally Assad carried out attack

Navigating the Political Risks of U.S. Action in Syria

The Trump administration said evidence clearly showed Syria was behind a chemical attack on civilians this month and accused Russia of trying to cover up for its ally, Bashar al-Assad, by spreading disinformation.

As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson headed for Moscow, the U.S. laid out its case in a document relying on declassified intelligence and open-source material, such as commercial satellite images and contemporaneous reports from the scene as well as evidence of sarin exposure gathered from the victims.

Tillerson arrives in Moscow April 11.

Photographer: Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

President Donald Trump has said the use of chemical munitions justified a U.S. missile strike last week on a Syrian airbase where the report said the Syrian planes that conducted the chemical attack were based. U.S. officials, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said the record is too extensive and independently corroborated to have been fabricated by Assad’s opponents.

“The United States is confident that the Syrian Regime conducted a chemical weapons attack, using the nerve agent sarin, against its own people,” according to the four-page document released by the White House summarizing its assessment of the attack and the role of Assad’s regime.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has compared accusations of Syrian chemical weapons use to the faulty intelligence used to justify the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Russian Foreign Ministry blasted the U.S. for relying on “staged photos of events on the ground” in justifying the strike on the Syrian airbase.

Pressure on Russia

The U.S. and its allies are trying to increase pressure on Russia’s government to abandon its support for Assad, which has been crucial in keeping the regime in power after six years of civil war. That conflict has become enmeshed with the battle against Islamic State and drawn in the U.S., Russia, Iran and Turkey, as well as multiple extremist groups and militias backed by regional powers such as Saudi Arabia.

Tillerson said Tuesday that Putin’s government has aligned itself with an “unreliable partner” in Assad, whose reign is coming to an end, as well as Iran and Hezbollah. Speaking to reporters in Lucca, Italy, where he was attending a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of Seven nations, Tillerson said Russia must withdraw support from Assad if it wants an “important role” in talks about Syria’s future.

Tillerson reiterated the U.S. policy that it will first focus on fighting Islamic State and then shift to the political future of Syria. But he made explicit that the U.S. sees no future for the Assad regime in Syria.

While Tillerson is set to meet Wednesday in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, it’s not clear whether Putin will agree to see him amid the increasing tensions in U.S.-Russian relations.

Advance Notice

The U.S. holds Russia partly responsible for the chemical attack because of its military alliance with Syria and its promise to guarantee a 2013 agreement aimed at eradicating Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpiles. However U.S. officials there’s been no clear-cut evidence so far that Russia knew in advance that Syrian forces were carrying out a chemical attack.

“There’s no consensus within the intelligence community there was involvement” by Russia, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the U.S. believes Assad used chemical weapons several times in recent years and it is “very clear” that the Assad regime planned and carried out last week’s attack. “Beyond that, we can’t say right now,” he said.

Putin has pushed back strongly against the U.S. narrative. “Syria and Russia provide a common enemy, a very good platform for consolidation” between the U.S. and its Western allies, Putin said at a press conference in the Kremlin with Italian President Sergio Mattarella,. “We’re ready to be patient. We hope only that this will end up on some kind of a positive trend.”

Russia also has called for an international investigation of the April 4 incident.

A man collects samples from the site of a suspected toxic gas attack on April 5.

Photographer: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images

The Trump administration said in the document that Syria and Russia “have sought to confuse the world community,” with Moscow saying the release of chemicals was caused by a regime airstrike on a ammunition depot controlled by terrorists. But video shows “where we believe the chemical munition landed -- not on a facility filled with weapons, but in the middle of a street,” the Trump administration said.

The U.S. officials said imagery after the attack shows a bomb left a crater in a road, rather than hitting a building, and that Islamic State forces in the region aren’t believed to have access to sarin, while the Assad regime does. The U.S. assessment is based on “signals intelligence and geospatial intelligence, laboratory analysis of physiological samples collected from multiple victims” and public information, including social media posts, according to the administration document.

Spicer told reporters Tuesday that Trump “has been very forceful” in criticizing Russia’s support for Syria and that Tillerson will do the same in his Moscow visit.

If Putin doesn’t receive the top U.S. diplomat it would be major snub by the Russian leader. Putin met Tillerson’s predecessor, John Kerry, on all four of his most recent visits to Russia, even as ties between the two countries spiraled lower, and virtually all of Tillerson’s predecessors met Russian leaders on their inaugural visits.

Russia said Tuesday that it will host foreign ministers from Syria and Iran, another major Assad backer, for talks in Moscow later this week.

— With assistance by John Follain, Henry Meyer, and Anthony Capaccio

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