Wednesday brought another round of hard language between Russia and the United States over Syria, with Turkey chipping in to declare Syrian dictator Bashar Assad guilty of war crimes.
As U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called Washington’s rhetoric on Syria “primitive and loutish.”
“As a whole, the administration’s stance with regard to Syria remains a mystery. Inconsistency is what comes to mind first of all,” Ryabkov said at a press conference.
White House officials have said, “it’s clear that the Russians are trying to cover up what happened” in Syria’s Idlib province on April 4.
Senior White House officials provided reporters with an anonymous briefing on Tuesday at which they expressed certainty that the Syrian government carried out the sarin gas attack in Idlib, which has killed at least 87 people, including children.
“The coverup is the disinformation. The Russian narrative is false,” one of the officials said while presenting a declassified U.S. intelligence assessment to that effect. Another accused Russia of conducting “a very clear campaign to obscure the nature of the attacks.”
The White House officials stated that Russian military advisers were present at the Sharyat airbase in Syria when a Syrian plane loaded with chemical munitions took off, but they said there was currently no consensus about whether the Russians had advanced knowledge of the attack, contrary to what an unnamed White House source said on Monday.
Notably, at least one of the officials involved in the anonymous briefing implied that Russia might have been consulted and given Assad approval for the attack. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley also suggested the Russians were in the loop on Tuesday, noting, “they didn’t look shocked, they didn’t look surprised, they were so quick to defend.”
“I think that they knew, yes,” Haley said bluntly, in response to a question from CNN’s Jamie Gangel.
As to the much-discussed question of why the Assad regime would perpetrate a chemical weapons attack at this stage in the Syrian civil war, American intelligence assessments note that Assad’s forces are still spread very thin in Syria. Also, rebel forces are still conducting some effective operations, including one about twenty miles away from where the chemical attack was conducted.
Turkey’s health minister Recep Akdag declared on Tuesday that blood and urine samples from Idlib victims proved they were exposed to sarin gas. Akdag called on the international community to “declare Assad as a war criminal and put him on trial.”
The UK Daily Mail notes that officials from the World Health Organization and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons participated in Turkey’s examination of the attack victims. The OPCW is scheduled to hold a closed-door meeting on Syria Thursday at its headquarters in the Hague.
Russian media is attempting to undermine Turkish criticism by noting that Turkey has long desired the end of the Assad regime and suggesting the Turks are bitter because they have been frozen out of Syrian peace talks.
The Daily Mail noticed a somewhat surprising condemnation of Assad from Iraqi Shiite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who called on the Syrian dictator to step down to “preserve the reputation of the Mumanaa and to escape a Qaddafi fate.” The Mumanaa is basically the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Russia power axis in the Middle East, while “Qaddafi fate” of course refers to the overthrow and killing of Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi.
Reuters describes Sadr as the “first Iraqi Shiite political leader to urge Assad to step down” and notes that he mixed his call with “kind words about the Syrian president and condemnation of the U.S. strikes carried out on a Syrian airbase on Friday.”