Russian, US ministers talk Syria in Moscow
MOSCOWThe foreign ministers of two major world powers, the United States and Russia, discussed the six-year-old war in Syria during their first face-to-face meeting in Moscow following the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Russia’s top diplomat, Sergei Lavrov, accused the U.S. on April 12 of carrying out an unlawful attack against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces on April 7 as he opened a fraught meeting with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Giving Tillerson a chilly reception, Lavrov said Russia was trying to understand the “real intentions” of Trump’s team. He said Moscow had many questions about the “very ambiguous” and “contradictory” ideas emanating from Washington.
“We have seen very alarming actions recently with an unlawful attack against Syria,” Lavrov said, referring to the cruise missiles Trump ordered to punish al-Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons. “We consider it of utmost importance to prevent the risks of replay of similar action in the future.”
Tillerson conceded the two world powers had “sharp differences” that have obstructed cooperation but voiced optimism that their talks could narrow those differences.
“We both have agreed our lines of communication shall always remain open,” Tillerson said.
Trump, meanwhile, told Fox Business News that the U.S. had no plans to become more deeply involved in Syria and only did so because of last week’s deadly chemical weapons attack that killed dozens.
“Are we going to get involved with Syria? No,” Trump said in the interview, which aired on April 12 in the U.S. “But if I see them using gas...we have to do something.”
“Frankly, Putin is backing a person that’s truly an evil person,” Trump said in the Fox Business Network interview, referring to al-Assad. “I think it’s very bad for Russia. I think it’s very bad for mankind.”
Of al-Assad, Trump added: “This is an animal.”
And Putin, who U.S. intelligence agencies say tried to help Trump get elected, insisted that relations with the U.S. had only gone downhill since Trump took office in January.
“The level of trust at the working level, especially at the military level, has not become better but most likely has degraded,” Putin said in an interview broadcast April 12 by state television channel Mir.
French President Francois Hollande said in an interview with Le Monde published on April 12 that France and the rest of Europe must use last week’s U.S. missile strike on Syria as a tool to revive peace negotiations between warring parties. Hollande said intelligence suggested that the nerve gas attack which prompted the U.S. missile strike was tactical in nature and launched from an aircraft.
Pentagon chief Jim Mattis said April 11 there was “no doubt” the Syrian regime was behind last week’s deadly chemical strike, while U.S. officials accused Moscow of waging a misinformation campaign around the attack.
A senior U.S. official said Moscow is trying to “confuse the world,” while Mattis said Washington is certain al-Assad is to blame.
“There is no doubt the Syrian regime is responsible for the decision to attack and for the attack itself,” the new defense chief said in his first Pentagon press conference.
He reiterated warnings that further chemical weapons use will be met with fresh U.S. action: “If they use chemical weapons, they are going to pay a very, very stiff price.”
The United Nations Security Council meanwhile was set to vote late April 12 on a resolution demanding the Syrian government cooperate with an investigation into the attack.
Russia on April 12 slammed as “unacceptable” the draft resolution put forward by Britain, France and the United States.
“In its current form this project is unacceptable for us,” Russian Deputy Foreign Ministry Gennady Gatilov told Interfax news agency. “We, of course, will not vote for it.”
U.S. officials have hinted strongly they believe Moscow is at least partially complicit.
“How is it possible that their forces were co-located with the Syrian forces that planned prepared and carried out this chemical weapons attack at the same installation and did not have foreknowledge?” said a senior U.S. official on condition of anonymity, according to AFP.
Samples taken from the site of a deadly toxic gas attack in Syria and analyzed by British scientists have tested positive for sarin or a sarin-like substance, Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft told the U.N. Security Council on April 12.
“The United Kingdom therefore shares the U.S. assessment that it is highly likely that the regime was responsible for a sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April,” Rycroft said.
Meanwhile, Iran’s Defense Minister Hossein Dehgan warned April 12 that any new U.S. action in Syria “will not go unanswered,” after America threatened to follow up a strike last week with more attacks.
“The Americans will have to pay a heavy price if they repeat their action and they must know that their actions will not go unanswered,” Dehgan said during a telephone conversation with Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu.
Dehgan accused American leaders of lying by saying they wanted to “fight terrorists”.
“Instead of bombing, the Syrian army and the Syrian people are being bombed,” Dehgan said, quoted in a statement on the website of his ministry.
Evacuation of Syria towns begins with prisoner exchange
A deal to evacuate four besieged Syrian towns began April 12 with an exchange of prisoners between rebels and government forces, local sources and state media said.
Thousands of people, both civilians and fighters, were expected to begin leaving government-held Fuaa and Kafraya and opposition-controlled Madaya and Zabadani later in the day.
The evacuations of the four besieged towns come under an agreement brokered by rebel backer Qatar and government ally Iran last month.
An AFP photographer in government-held Aleppo city saw 12 of the prisoners released by the opposition, nine of whom appeared to be suffering injuries, arriving along with eight bodies.
Syrian state news agency SANA said the four children and eight women had been transferred with the bodies of “eight martyrs” from “terrorist groups in Idlib province.”
It said the exchange of prisoners marked the start of the “implementation of the first phase of the agreement.”
SANA said that “19 militants” were transferred from Fuaa and Kafraya at the same time.
A source in the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham alliance confirmed the exchange.
Fuaa and Kafraya are government-held Shiite-majority villages in the otherwise rebel-controlled province of Idlib.
Madaya and Zabadani are opposition enclaves surrounded by regime forces in Damascus province.
The exchange marks the beginning of the implementation of the deal to evacuate the four towns, as well as part of the Yarmuk Palestinian camp in southern Damascus.