White House and Russia trade heated charges over poison gas attack in Syria

The White House and Russian President Vladimir Putin exchanged heated charges Tuesday over last week’s poison gas attack in Syria, stoking fresh tensions as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Moscow with demands that Russia withdraw support for the Syrian government.

The Trump administration released a declassified intelligence report that it said provided evidence that Russia’s explanation for the deadly April 4 chemical attack was false and that Moscow engaged in a deliberate coverup to protect its embattled ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"I think it's clear that the Russians are trying to cover up what happened there," said a White House official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss the four-page report. "The Russian narrative is false."

U.S. intelligence officials have not concluded that the Russian military authorities knew in advance about the gas attack, and denied published reports to that effect.

"There is not a consensus on our side" about Russian foreknowledge, the White House official said.

The White House wants Russia to "stop the disinformation campaign" and work to prevent Assad’s forces from launching more chemical attacks, a second White House official said.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis warned that Assad’s government would “pay a very, very stiff price” if it used chemical weapons again.

Mattis said he could not say if the Russian government had played a role in the attack, which killed about 80 civilians, including children, and injured hundreds more.

“It was very clear the Assad regime planned it, orchestrated it and executed it,” he said. “Beyond that, we can’t say right now.”

For his part, Putin criticized President Trump’s decision to launch a retaliatory cruise missile strike Thursday on the Shayrat Airfield, the Syrian air base that the Pentagon says was used to launch the chemical assault.

Putin called the airstrike a “provocation” designed to distract the public from Trump’s problems, and suggested that the White House was planning other “provocations” in Syria, including near Damascus, that it would use to justify further U.S. attacks.

He compared the Trump administration’s analysis of the chemical attack to the faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction that the George W. Bush administration used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which Russia opposed.

"It reminds me of the events in 2003 when U.S. envoys to the Security Council were demonstrating what they said were chemical weapons found in Iraq," Putin told reporters Tuesday in Moscow. "We have seen it all already."

Tillerson’s one-day visit to Moscow, his first since taking office, initially was billed as following up on Trump's campaign promises to try to repair relations with Russia, and to capitalize on Tillerson’s personal ties to Putin from when the U.S. envoy headed Exxon Mobil.

Although Trump has not spoken in public about a possible Russian role in the Syrian attacks, the latest high-level sparring — and the FBI investigation into whether the Trump campaign cooperated with Russian intelligence agencies during the 2016 presidential race — appeared to sink any chance of a thaw.

Tillerson has repeatedly said since Thursday that Putin’s government was either complicit or incompetent because it failed to rid Syria of chemical weapons, as required under a 2013 agreement brokered by the United Nations with Russia as the guarantor.

Tillerson told reporters Tuesday that he would urge Russian officials to drop support for Assad, Moscow’s most important Middle Eastern ally, and that he was confident Assad was on his way out — much as Obama administration officials often predicted.

“I think it is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end,” Tillerson said at a G7 summit of industrialized nations in Lucca, Italy, before he left for Moscow. “But the question of how that ends and the transition itself could be very important, in our view, to the durability, the stability inside of a unified Syria.”

Tillerson said he would argue that Russia is isolating itself by joining forces, at least tacitly, with Iran and its militant proxy Hezbollah in the Syrian war.

“Is that a long-term alliance that serves Russia’s interest, or would Russia prefer to realign with the United States, with other Western countries and Middle East countries who are seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis?” he asked.

Tillerson will not be able to threaten new international sanctions against Russia. The Group of Seven — colloquially known as the G7 — could not agree on adding sanctions after Italy and Germany raised objections.

“We must have dialogue with Russia,” Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said. “We must not push Russia into a corner.”

In their final communique, the G7 members called for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate the gas attack. They also urged Russia to change its attitude and “help resolve the conflict and restore a stable and unified Syria.”

Tillerson is scheduled to meet his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on Wednesday. Though it is customary for Putin to meet with visiting U.S. secretaries of State, the Kremlin said Monday that the president will not receive Tillerson.

In his Senate confirmation hearing, Tillerson said cutting multibillion-dollar oil deals in Russia when he headed Exxon Mobil had taught him how Putin operated, how he thinks and what makes him act.

In the briefing Tuesday, U.S. officials gave their first theory about Syria’s alleged motivation for using chemical agents.

They said Syrian rebels were close to capturing a strategic airfield, near the government-held city of Hama, that Assad’s forces relied on to attack rebel positions across central Syria. U.S. officials believe that threat may have prompted Assad’s forces to use gas against villagers in Khan Sheikhoun, about 20 miles from Hama.

"There was a calculus that the regime and perhaps their Russian advisors" made to use chemical agents as part of a defensive strategy, a White House official said, noting that Assad's military forces were "spread quite thin."

The newly released U.S. intelligence report says a Russian-built, Syrian piloted Su-22 fixed-wing aircraft took off from Shayrat Airfield and dropped the nerve gas on Khan Sheikhoun about 6:55 a.m.

It adds that “personnel historically associated with Syria’s chemical weapons program” were at the airfield in late March to help prepare an attack, and were present again on April 4.

Russian troops and aircraft were deployed at the northern edge of the base, but the report does not say if they were present that day. It also does not say if U.S. officials believe Assad’s forces hid the lethal toxic agent from U.N. monitors in 2013, or if they had secretly prepared a new batch.

It dismisses Russian and Syrian claims that a conventional bomb had struck a chemical weapons stockpile used by rebel forces, and that the rebels then had fabricated evidence — including grisly videos posted to social media shortly after the attack — to blame Assad’s forces.

Doing so would have “required a highly organized campaign to deceive multiple media outlets and human rights organizations while evading detection,” it says.

It accuses Moscow of concocting “multiple, conflicting accounts in order to create confusion and sow doubt within the international community.”

U.S. officials also fought back against suggestions that the U.S. missile strike was largely symbolic. They said it destroyed 23 Syrian aircraft, although Syrian planes still were able to use the two runways shortly after the U.S. attack.

After the U.S. attack, Russia said it would suspend a special telephone hotline set up to prevent U.S. and Russian warplanes from colliding or accidentally firing upon each other in the skies over Syria, where both are conducting bombing missions.

The Pentagon has refused to say if the so-called de-confliction line was shut down, however.

Col. John Thomas, spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East, told reporters Monday that “we’re going to make sure that we maintain the best possible communication in the airspace to keep it safe.”

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter

Los Angeles Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan in Washington and special correspondents Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow and Christina Boyle in London contributed.

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