U.S. Takes Sharper Tone on Russia’s Role in Syria

WASHINGTON — President Trump and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson sought on Wednesday to isolate President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for backing the Syrian government in the wake of its lethal chemical weapons attack on civilians, and worked to build international pressure on Moscow to change course.

In Washington, Moscow and New York, the Trump administration publicly chastised Mr. Putin but privately worked to hash out increasingly bitter differences with him. At the same time, Mr. Trump embraced NATO — a military alliance he had previously derided as obsolete — as an effective and vital force for peace and security in a region where Russia has been an aggressive actor.

During his presidential campaign, and in his early days in office, Mr. Trump’s approach to foreign policy included speaking warmly of Mr. Putin and the prospects of a United States alliance with Russia. He had also questioned the usefulness of NATO, and the concept of an alliance for common defense to counterbalance Moscow’s belligerence.

In an interview that aired on Wednesday, Mr. Trump said that Mr. Putin was partly to blame for the conflict in Syria and denounced him for backing President Bashar al-Assad, whom he called an “animal.” Later at the White House, Mr. Trump said that Russia had likely known in advance of the Syrian government’s plan to unleash a nerve agent against its own people, and asserted that the United States’ relations with Moscow were at an “all-time low.”

 

In Moscow, Mr. Tillerson came away from a two-hour meeting with Mr. Putin — the first such face-to-face session of the Trump administration — without reaching agreement on facts involving the chemical weapons assault in Syria or Russian interference in the American election. And sharply diverging from the meeting of the minds between the United States and Russia that Mr. Trump frequently aspired to when he was campaigning, there was no visible warming of the relationship.

“There is a low level of trust between our countries,” Mr. Tillerson told reporters at a joint news conference with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov. “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.”

The most immediate casualty of the clash was Russia’s decision last week to suspend a communication channel, set up in 2015, to share information about American and Russian air operations over Syria to avoid possible conflict. Mr. Lavrov said on Wednesday that “we’re willing to put it back into force” if Washington and Moscow can resolve their differences.

Further punctuating the Syria dispute, Russia on Wednesday vetoed a Western-backed resolution at the United Nations Security Council that condemned the chemical weapons attack. It was the eighth time in the six-year-old Syrian civil war that Russia, one of the five permanent Security Council members, had used its veto power to shield the government in Damascus. But in a possible sign of Russia’s isolation on the chemical weapons issue, China, the permanent member that usually votes with Russia on Syria resolutions, abstained.

The vote came the day after Mr. Trump spoke by phone to President Xi Jinping of China, whom he hosted last week at a summit at his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Palm Beach, Fla. White House officials said they credited the relationship between the two leaders that was forged during the visit, and the conversation Tuesday evening, with helping to influence China’s vote.

The day began with harsh words from Mr. Trump toward Mr. Putin, whom he had once praised effusively.

“I really think there’s going to be a lot of pressure on Russia to make sure that peace happens, because frankly, if Russia didn’t go in and back this animal, we wouldn’t have a problem right now,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with Fox Business Network, referring to Mr. Assad. “Putin is backing a person that’s truly an evil person, and I think it’s very bad for Russia. I think it’s very bad for mankind. It’s very bad for this world.”

Later, after a meeting at the White House with Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, Mr. Trump went out of his way to praise the military institution, which he called a “great alliance,” and to express disappointment with Russia.

Asked whether it was possible that Syrian forces could have launched the chemical attack without Russia’s knowledge, Mr. Trump said: “It’s certainly possible; I think it’s probably unlikely.”

“I would like to think that they didn’t know, but certainly they could have. They were there,” Mr. Trump said of the Russians during a 30-minute news conference at the White House.

Even as they have intensified their criticism of Russia for backing Mr. Assad, other senior Trump administration officials, including Mr. Tillerson and Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense, have been careful to say there is no consensus that Moscow had foreknowledge that the Assad government planned to launch a chemical assault.

“Right now, we’re not getting along with Russia at all — we may be at an all-time low in terms of a relationship with Russia,” Mr. Trump said on Wednesday. Still, he held out hope that the United States and Russia could come to terms, suggesting that Mr. Tillerson’s talks with Mr. Putin had gone better than expected.

A quick détente seemed a remote possibility, given the level of tension surrounding the aftermath of the Syrian chemical weapons attack. On Tuesday, the White House accused Mr. Putin’s government of covering up evidence that Mr. Assad had been responsible for the sarin assault, which was launched from a base where Russian troops are operating.

Mr. Putin shot back that the charge was fabricated and accused the administration of Mr. Trump, who American intelligence agencies believe benefited during the election campaign from Russian cyberattacks intended to embarrass his Democratic rival, of fabricating the evidence to create a fake confrontation.

Amid the rift with Russia, Mr. Trump made a striking reversal on NATO, saying the alliance had transformed into an effective one since he took office.

“I said it was obsolete; it’s no longer obsolete,” Mr. Trump said, standing beside Mr. Stoltenberg.

Mr. Trump attributed his change of heart to unspecified transformations within NATO, which he said were a direct response to criticism he had leveled that the alliance was not doing enough to combat terrorism.

“I complained about that a long time ago,” Mr. Trump said, “and they changed.”

It was not clear what the president was referring to; NATO forces have been fighting alongside the United States in Afghanistan for more than a decade, an effort focused on combating terrorist groups including the Taliban.

Still, the turnabout drew praise from some lawmakers who had been concerned with Mr. Trump’s previous stance.

“Without NATO, the Soviet Union would be quarterbacking half of Europe today and Putin knows it,” said Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska. “NATO is the most successful military alliance in human history. This was the right decision.”

His comments came hours after a senior White House official said the Trump administration had supported the admission of Montenegro into NATO this week, in part to counter the influence of Russia in the small Balkan nation. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the official cited “credible reports” that Moscow had backed a plot for a violent Election Day attack there last fall.

Mr. Trump on Tuesday signed the paperwork allowing Montenegro to enter NATO, two weeks after the Senate approved the move in a March 28 vote. The country’s admission, White House officials said in a statement, should signal to other nations aspiring to join the alliance that “the door to membership in the Euro-Atlantic community of nations remains open and that countries in the western Balkans are free to choose their own future and select their own partners without outside interference or intimidation.”

Advertisements

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s