The U.S. and Russia slammed each other Tuesday in a rapidly intensifying war of words over the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, with the White House press secretary using a bungled Hitler analogy and Russia’s president bringing up the futile U.S. hunt for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
The verbal showdown was the latest sign that President Donald Trump’s administration is stepping back, for now, from its hopes of improving U.S.-Russian relations following Trump’s decision to stage a missile strike on Syria’s regime because of its alleged use of chemical weapons. The heated rhetoric also further raised the stakes for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as he meets with officials in Moscow, where he landed Tuesday.
The White House demanded that Russia stop disputing the reality of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s recent use of poison gas to kill dozens, and it warned Assad not to make any more such moves. At one point, White House press secretary Sean Spicer cast Assad as being worse than Adolf Hitler, whom, Spicer claimed incorrectly, had never used chemical weapons.
“In this particular case, it’s no question that Russia is isolated. They have aligned themselves with North Korea, Syria, Iran, and that is not exactly a group of countries you are looking to hang out with,” said Spicer, who, after being questioned, acknowledged he’d misspoken about the Nazi ruler.
Earlier in the day, Russian President Vladimir Putin compared the U.S. accusation that Assad used chemical weapons to its futile hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Putin also said Moscow had information that some Syrian elements were planning to stage chemical attacks to provoke more U.S. missile strikes against Assad’s regime. America needs to be careful about overreacting to false flags, the Russian president warned.
In 2003, "a military campaign started in Iraq, and it ended with the destruction of the country, the growth of the terrorist threat and the emergence of the Islamic State terrorist organization on the international scene, no more and no less," Putin said, Russian media reported. "The same is happening now."
But U.S. officials said Tuesday they are increasingly certain that the Assad regime was behind the recent gas attack, and that they also believe they have identified the strategic rationale behind the move.
In a document provided by a senior White House official, the U.S. estimates that between 50 and 100 people, many of them children, died in the chemical weapons attack, and that hundreds more were injured.
“The United States is confident that the Syrian regime conducted a chemical weapons attack, using the nerve agent sarin, against its own people in the town of Khan Shaykhun in southern Idlib Province on April 4, 2017,” the document states. “We assess that Damascus launched this chemical attack in response to an opposition offensive in northern Hamah Province that threatened key infrastructure … Senior regime military leaders were probably involved in planning the attack.”
The White House also warned that further chemical weapon attacks will be met with a severe response.
“The Assad regime’s brutal use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and poses a clear threat to the national security interests of the United States and the international community,” the document states. The U.S. and its allies “must demonstrate…that the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons will not be permitted to continue.”
Without giving details, the document also promised that “the United States intends to send a clear message now that we and our partners will not allow the world to become a more dangerous place due to the egregious acts of the Assad regime.”
The assessment in the document and sharp words from the White House were the latest in a remarkable turn for the Trump administration, which took office hoping to find common ground with Russia, especially when it came to fighting the Islamic State terrorist network. Trump himself had, during his presidential campaign, said the U.S. should stay out of the Syrian conflict between Assad and rebel forces trying to oust him.
But Assad’s decision to use chemical weapons rattled Trump, who authorized last Thursday’s missile strike on a Syrian airbase after being taken aback by images of children suffering from the gassing. While the Republican president himself has stayed largely quiet about Russia’s role, his aides have slammed Moscow repeatedly in the days since. To a degree it has given the Trump administration a bit of political breathing room amid allegations that Russia interfered with the 2016 election to help Trump, who, throughout the campaign, spoke warmly of Putin.
Assad has been fighting rebels since early 2011, a conflict that has left an estimated half-million people dead and given space for terrorist groups such as the Islamic State to flourish on Syrian territory.
Russia, along with Tehran, has militarily backed the Syrian regime for years, while using its veto on the U.N. Security Council to shield Assad from international reprisals. In the most recent case, Russia has refused to accept that Assad’s forces dropped the gas bombs on Idlib, alleging instead that rebel forces had stored the chemical weapons in a warehouse struck by regime bombs.
But the Trump administration has dismissed that theory.
“Russia’s allegations fit with a pattern of deflecting blame from the regime and attempting to undermine the credibility of its opponents,” said the document provided by the White House official. “Moscow’s response to the April 4 attack follows a familiar pattern of its responses to other egregious actions; it spins out multiple, conflicting accounts in order to create confusions and sow doubt within the international community.”
Putin said Russia wants an international investigation into the Idlib attack. Past international investigations into such chemical attacks have laid most of the blame on Assad, but Russia has downplayed the findings and shielded him from U.N. sanctions.
The Syrian regime began using chemical weapons during the presidency of Barack Obama. Despite having a “red line” on the use of such weapons, Obama ultimately decided not to pursue a military strike against Assad. Instead, the Obama administration and Russia helped orchestrate a 2013 deal that was believed to have removed most — though possibly not all — of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile.
Trump administration officials have criticized Russia, which promised to serve as a guarantor of the agreement, for not keeping Assad in line on it. Several of the chemical attacks reported in Syria since 2013 involved chlorine, whose status under that deal is a bit murky. But the attack in Idlib province is believed to involve sarin, which was supposed to have been removed.
The chemical attack drew international outrage, while Trump’s decision to rain missiles on a Syrian airfield in retaliation last Thursday garnered tremendous support. Aside from Russia, however, Iran and North Korea criticized the U.S. move.
Tillerson is due to meet Wednesday morning with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. It was not clear if he would meet with Putin at all. If the Russian president decides not to meet with Tillerson on what is his first trip to Moscow as secretary of state it would break tradition and could further deepen the U.S.-Russia turmoil.
Aidan Quigley contributed to this report.