Washington has ratcheted up pressure on Russia to end its support of Bashar al-Assad, Syrian president, with the US’s top diplomat saying the problem in Syria was Moscow’s sponsorship of a “murderous regime”.
The remarks by Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, indicated the Trump administration may attempt to use its air strike on a Syrian air base Friday as the opening move in a major policy shift in the region.
The White House had previously indicated the missile attack was launched to punish Damascus for a suspected chemical attack that killed more than 80 people in northern Syria, and during the presidential campaign, Donald Trump advocated giving Mr Assad free rein within his own country to attack terrorist groups.
Mr Tillerson, who is due to meet Russian leaders in Moscow on Wednesday, said Moscow had failed in its commitments to prevent the Syrian government using chemical weapons. Russia intervened militarily to back the Assad regime in 2015, tilting the balance of the six-year war in its favour.
“I hope Russia is thinking carefully about its continued alliance with Bashar al-Assad because every time one of these horrific attacks occurs, it draws Russia closer into some level of responsibility,” Mr Tillerson told ABC news. “I don’t draw conclusions of complicity at all, but clearly they’ve been incompetent and perhaps they’ve just simply been outmanoeuvred by the Syrians.”
Lt Gen HR McMaster, US president Donald Trump’s national security adviser, went further, questioning how Russian advisers deployed at the Shayrat air base from which the chemical attack was allegedly launched could not have known about it.
“Part of the problem in Syria is Russia’s sponsorship for this murderous regime,” Gen McMaster told Fox News. “This is a great opportunity for the Russian leadership to re-evaluate what they are doing . . . Russia needs to be part of the solution.”
Moscow, meanwhile, has reacted angrily to the US missile attack, allying itself with Iran, the other main foreign backer of Mr Assad, to warn against further American strikes.
In a phone call on Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani, his Iranian counterpart, “noted the inadmissibility of aggressive US actions against a sovereign state in violation of international law”, the Kremlin said.
The two leaders called for an “objective, unbiased investigation of all the circumstances” of the chemical weapons attack.
In a sign of the rising tensions, a media outlet that is considered a mouth piece of Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia militant group, said on Sunday that a joint command centre of Russia, Iran, Syria and foreign militias fighting on Mr Assad’s behalf, had threatened to respond if there were more US attacks against the Syrian regime. But neither Russian or Iranian officials confirmed the statement.
A Russian foreign policy official said that Washington’s markedly harsher attitude towards Moscow was designed to set the tone ahead of Mr Tillerson’s talks in Moscow on Wednesday.
“They want to demonstrate strength so he can start with a set of maximum demands,” he said.
European governments hope that Washington’s more aggressive stance will boost stalled efforts to find a political solution to end Syria’s conflict.
Angelino Alfano, Italy’s foreign minister who will host a meeting of G7 nations that begins on Monday, told the Financial Times that the US missile strike on the air base offered a “window of opportunity” for a “political solution based on an institutional transition of power in Syria”.
Boris Johnson, UK foreign secretary, on Saturday called off a planned visit to Moscow, saying that he would leave Mr Tillerson to deliver a “clear and co-ordinated message”.
But the Trump administration’s mixed messages on Syria have also triggered some doubts about what its strategy on the conflict is.
Mr Trump had in the past said that he did not want to become embroiled in the war in Syria and would instead focus on combating Isis targets in the country. But the White House said that he had been moved into action by last week’s chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun.
“On the one side, it’s an opportunity, on the other it’s dangerous,” Israel Katz, Israel’s intelligence minister, said about the US attack. “The danger is that Russia will escalate,” he said.
The danger, he said, would be not a direct conflict between Israel and Russia, but that the proxies of Iran in Syria, notably Hizbollah, might act.
Additional reporting by James Politi in Rome, Arthur Beesley in Brussels and John Reed in Jerusalem