Putin hardens Moscow's support of Syria regime before Tillerson visit

Emma Graham-Harrison, Julian Borger in Washington and Spencer Ackerman in New York

Vladimir Putin has deepened his support of the Syrian regime, claiming its opponents planned false-flag chemical weapon attacks to justify further US missile strikes.

The Russian president’s predictions on Tuesday of an escalation in the Syrian war involving more use of chemical weapons 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.

Tillerson had hoped to underscore the US position with a unified message from the G7, which condemned the chemical attack at a summit in Italy on Tuesday. However, G7 foreign ministers were divided over possible next steps and refused to back a British call for fresh sanctions.

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 said Russia had information that the US was planning to launch new missile strikes on Syria, and that there were plans to fake chemical 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 predicted such fake attacks would be used to justify further US missile strikes on the regime, like the attack on Shayrat air force base on Friday.

Senior White House officials said that Syrian military officers involved in the regime’s chemical weapons programme were at the Shayrat base ahead of and on the day of the Khan Sheikhun attack, which they claimed was carried out by a Syrian air force Su-22 warplane, dropping at least one munition containing sarin nerve agent.

One official said that there was “no consensus based on the information we have” of direct Russian complicity, but pointed out that the Russian and Syrian military had a long history of close cooperation and that Russian troops were at Shayrat base at the time of the attack.

In his remarks Putin said 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 favour with Donald Trump.

Before leaving 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.

G7 explainer

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 emphasised that after taking power his only focus in Syria would be defeating Islamic State, repeatedly signalling that he had little interest in regime change. Last month his spokesman described Assad’s rule as “political reality”.

That policy was upended by the chemical attack on a rebel-held town in northern Syria, which killed nearly 90 people, about a third of them children. Images of the victims caused international outrage and apparently moved Trump to order 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 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.

Soon after, the Russian foreign ministry announced plans for a meeting between Syrian, Iranian and Russian ministers.

The British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, had led the push for further sanctions on Syrian and Russian leaders. On Tuesday, he said sanctions could still follow the findings of an investigation by the independent Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

“We hope that it may be possible, if we get evidence, that those responsible for unleashing those chemical weapons should be [subject to] sanctions,” he told the BBC, adding that there was widespread support for sanctions if the investigation confirmed Syrian or Russian responsibility.

Germany and Italy have made clear they feel increasing broad economic restrictions on Russia would be counter-productive, and the Italian foreign minister, Angelino Alfano, said it would be wrong to isolate Russia or push it into a corner.

Instead the group should push for political change, after punitive US strikes offered “a window of opportunity to construct a new positive condition for the political process in Syria”, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.

Adding to tensions between the US and Russia, a senior US official said on Monday that Washington had reached a preliminary conclusion that Russia knew in advance about the chemical weapons attack, although it had no proof of Moscow’s involvement, the Associated Press reported.

Russia was the guarantor of a 2013 deal under which Syria would remove all chemical weapons. Tillerson said it was not clear if Russia had failed in that role through complicity or incompetence, but that the distinction mattered little to the dead. “We cannot let this happen again,” he said.

Washington has played down expectations that the trip will produce any shift in Russian policy, saying only that it hopes to deliver a message, and leave Russia to consider its response.

The Russian foreign ministry released a truculent statement before Tillerson arrived in Moscow, noting that Russian-American relations were going through the “most difficult period since the end of the cold war”. It said the “long list of irritants that have arisen through Washington’s fault is not decreasing”.

At the G7 summit, diplomats attended a rapidly convened sideline meeting with diplomats from Muslim-majority regional powers, including Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

These countries, regarded as holding a key role in US hopes for ensuring stability after the defeat of Isis, would also be critical to preventing Syria from sliding into greater chaos and violence if Assad stepped down or was removed.

Additional reporting by Alec Luhn

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