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As ties ebb, Trump says Russia may have known about Syria gas attack

US president calls Assad a ‘butcher,’ says relations with Moscow possibly at all-time low, while expressing rare backing for NATO

US President Donald Trump takes a question during a joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg  in the East Room at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 12, 2017. AFP/Nicholas Kamm)
US President Donald Trump takes a question during a joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the East Room at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 12, 2017. AFP/Nicholas Kamm)

WASHINGTON — With tensions rising over Syria and other issues, President Donald Trump said Wednesday that US relations with Russia “may be at an all-time low,” saying Moscow may have known about a chemical attack by Syrian “butcher” Bashar Assad while expressing support for the NATO alliance.

“Right now we’re not getting along with Russia at all,” Trump said flatly during a White House news conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Soltenberg.

It was a grim assessment that echoed the words of Trump’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who left an almost two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow declaring the countries had reached a “low point” in relations.

Trump said Tillerson had completed a successful meeting with Putin, where “things went pretty well.” But he said it was an open question where relations go from here. He said “it would be a fantastic thing” if the two nations got along better but cautioned that “it may be just the opposite.”

Regarding Syria, Trump said it was “certainly possible” that Russia knew in advance of Damascus’s plans to launch a chemical weapons attack on a village outside Idlib, an incident which left scores dead, sparking an international outcry and drawing US airstrikes, leading to the nadir in ties between Moscow and Washington.

“I would like to think that they didn’t know, but certainly they could have. They were there. So we’ll find out,” he said.

Russian Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Vladimir Safronkov holds up his hand as he votes against a draft resolution that condemned the reported use of chemical weapons in Syria during a meeting at the UN Headquarters in New York, April 12, 2017. (AFP/KENA BETANCUR)
Russian Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Vladimir Safronkov holds up his hand as he votes against a draft resolution that condemned the reported use of chemical weapons in Syria during a meeting at the UN Headquarters in New York, April 12, 2017. (AFP/KENA BETANCUR)

Trump’s comments came shortly after Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have compelled Damascus to cooperate with an investigation of the attack.

More than 80 people were killed in what the US has described as a nerve gas attack that Assad’s forces undoubtedly carried out. Russia says rebels were responsible for whatever chemical agent was found, which the Trump administration calls a disinformation campaign.

Trump called on allies to “work together to resolve the disaster” in Syria and thanked them for condemning Assad’s suspected sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun.

“Vicious slaughter of innocent civilians with chemical weapons including the barbaric killing of small and helpless children and babies must be forcefully rejected by any nation that values human life,” Trump told reporters.

“That’s a butcher. That’s a butcher. So I felt we had to do something about it. I have absolutely no doubt we did the right thing, and it was very, very successfully done,” he added.

“It is time to end this brutal civil war, defeat terrorists and allow refugees to return home.”

Turkish officials with chemical clothes carry an injured man on April 4, 2017 in Hatay province, near the Syrian border. (AFP/Dogan News Agency)
Turkish officials with chemical clothes carry an injured man on April 4, 2017 in Hatay province, near the Syrian border. (AFP/Dogan News Agency)

Trump also praised China for abstaining during the UN vote. He met President Xi Jinping last week in Florida and spoke again to the Chinese leader on Tuesday.

“I think it’s wonderful that they abstained,” he said. “We’re honored by the vote. That’s the vote that should have taken place.”

At the same time, Trump called NATO the “bulwark of international peace and security,” after earlier indicating he might downgrade the US’s engagement with the trans-Atlantic alliance seen as a European safeguard against Russian aggression.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (L) and US President Donald Trump hold a joint press conference in the East Room at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 12, 2017. AFP/Brendan Smialowski)
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (L) and US President Donald Trump hold a joint press conference in the East Room at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 12, 2017. AFP/Brendan Smialowski)

Reversing some of his campaign rhetoric, Trump told a joint news conference that NATO “is no longer obsolete” and hailed its role in the fight “against terrorism.”

But he renewed his argument that NATO’s member states need to dedicate two percent of their gross domestic product to military expenditure.

“In facing our common challenges, we must also ensure that NATO members meet their financial obligations and pay what they owe,” he said.

Stoltenberg said he and Trump had agreed in their talk that “NATO is a bedrock of security, both for Europe and for the United States… and therefore I welcome the very strong commitment of the United States to the security of Europe.”

The less-than-positive assessments of relations with Russia by both Trump and Tillerson reflected the former Cold War foes’ inability to forge greater cooperation, as Trump until recently has advocated.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson take part in a press conference after a meeting in Moscow on April 12, 2017. (AFP Photo/Alexander Nemenov)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson take part in a press conference after a meeting in Moscow on April 12, 2017. (AFP Photo/Alexander Nemenov)

The Moscow news conference came after Putin met Tillerson for the first time since Trump took office. The diplomats know each other well from Tillerson’s days as Exxon Mobil CEO. Putin had even honored Tillerson with a friendship award.

Beyond Syria, Russia’s alleged meddling in the US presidential election also hovered over what was the first face-to-face encounter between Putin and any Trump administration Cabinet member.

Lavrov blasted US claims that it has “irrefutable evidence” of election interference.

“We have not seen a single fact, or even a hint of facts,” he said. “I do not know who saw them. No one showed us anything, no one said anything, although we repeatedly asked to produce the details on which these unfounded accusations lie.”

He also rejected American claims of incontrovertible evidence that Assad ordered the chemical attack.

Still, Tillerson sought to stress the positives from his meetings. He said working groups would be established to improve U.S.-Russian ties and identify problems. He said the two sides would also discuss disagreements on Syria and how to end the country’s six-year civil war.

But such hopes appeared optimistic as the diplomats outlined their sharply diverging views on Syria. Until the chemical attack, the Trump administration had sought to step back from the U.S. position that Assad should leave power. But Tillerson repeated the administration’s new belief that “the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end.”

Tillerson said Syria’s government had committed more than 50 attacks using chlorine or other chemical weapons over the duration of the conflict. And he suggested that possible war crimes charges could be levied against the Syrian leader. Russia has never publicly acknowledged any such attacks by Assad’s forces and has tried for the past 18 months to help him expand his authority in Syria.

The civil war is separate from the U.S.-led effort against the Islamic State group in the north of the country.

While the most immediate US-Russian dispute concerned culpability for the chemical weapons, broader disagreements over everything from Ukraine to Russia’s support for once-fringe candidates in European elections were among other sore points.

Steeped in geopolitical intrigue, the meeting between Putin and Tillerson wasn’t formally confirmed until the last minute, following days of speculation about whether the Russian would refuse to grant the former oil executive an audience. Putin’s decision to host Tillerson signaled Moscow’s intent to maintain communication with the U.S. even as the countries bash each other publicly in louder and louder tones.

Tillerson was greeted frostily in the Russian capital as Lavrov began their meeting Wednesday by demanding to know America’s “real intentions.”

“We have seen very alarming actions recently with an unlawful attack against Syria,” Lavrov said, referring to the 59 Tomahawk missiles Trump launched at a Syrian air base to punish Assad for using chemical weapons. “We consider it of utmost importance to prevent the risks of replay of similar action in the future.”

US President Donald Trump tells Fox Business Network he was eating chocolate cake when he gave order to strike Syria, in an interview on April 12, 2017. (Screen capture)
US President Donald Trump tells Fox Business Network he was eating chocolate cake when he gave order to strike Syria, in an interview on April 12, 2017. (Screen capture)

Trump and others have indeed threatened similar action. But in a Fox Business Network interview, the US president said he wouldn’t intervene militarily against Assad unless the Syrian leader resorts to using weapons of mass destruction again. “Are we going to get involved with Syria? No,” Trump said. But, he added, “I see them using gas … we have to do something.”

Only weeks ago, it appeared that Trump, who praised Putin throughout the US election campaign, was poised for a potentially historic rapprochement with Russia. Any expectations of an easy rapport have crashed into reality amid the nasty back-and-forth over Syria and ongoing U.S. investigations into Russia’s activity connected to the US presidential election.

Allegations of collusion between Russian officials and Trump campaign associates also have weakened Trump’s ability to sweeten any offer for greater cooperation, such as by easing economic sanctions on Moscow related to its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

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