Russia: Vladimir Putin meets Tillerson as Syria rift deepens
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday said that relations with Moscow are at 'a low point' after meetings in Russia that seemed to do little to bridge a deepening diplomatic divide over the Syria chemical attack.
'Relations are at a low point; there is a low level of trust between the two countries,' Tillerson said at a news conference with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, CNN reports.
Tillerson and Lavrov spoke to the press after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in an extended display of U.S.-Russian disagreements over the chemical attack that left more than 80 dead.
In a blatant response to the alleged chemical attack, the U.S. launched dozens of Tomahawk to destroy the Shayrat airfield in Syria, believed by Washington be the base for warplanes that carried out the chemical attack on a rebel-held town on Tuesday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the strike as 'act of aggression' and said it violated international law.
Meanwhile, Tillerson said that he and Lavrov discussed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at length and that he made clear that the Trump administration has come around to the view that the Syrian President cannot stay in power.
'Our view is that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end and they have brought that on themselves with their conduct,' the top U.S. diplomat said.
Washington has been investigating Russia's possible involvement in the chemical attack in Syria that prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to launch the first direct military assault against the Bashar al-Assad regime.
The Pentagon has been looking for any evidence that Moscow knew about or was complicit in the attack in Idlib province that killed at least 80 people and injured dozens more, the CNN reported quoting a senior US defense official as saying.
However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said, 'That is not true,' when CNN asked about U.S. allegations that Russia may be complicit.
Russia has also denied a chemical weapons attack took place in Syria saying the deaths in Khan Sheikhoun were caused by a Syrian regime airstrike on a rebel-controlled chemical weapons factory on the ground.
Western leaders backed the U.S. action, saying Assad had brought it on himself.
The U.S. military official said the Pentagon was examining specifically whether a Russian warplane had bombed a hospital in Khan Sheikhoun five hours after the initial chemical attack, with the aim of destroying evidence.
A U.S. defense official says intelligence shows a Russian drone flew over the hospital in Idlib that was treating victims of the chemical attack, prior to the site being later bombed by an unknown aircraft.
The Russians operate drones in the area routinely so the Pentagon cannot be certain the drone operator even knew what was happening, but the drone was a Russian asset. The U.S. military has a variety of classified technical means to determine who is operating aircraft in the region.
Approximately 20 Syrian regime planes were destroyed in the US strike, according to two U.S. senior military officials.
Reacting to the U.S. strike Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Washington had carried out an 'unjust and unabashed assault' against Syria which 'shows nothing but short-sightedness, a narrowness of vision and blindness to political and military realities.'
A statement from Syria's general military command said the strikes caused 'extensive material damage' and undermined counter-terror operations by the Syrian Army.
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