Amid increasing tensions between the US and Russia over how to handle the conflict in Syria, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov faced off in a press conference following their meeting in Moscow.
Near the beginning of the press conference on Wednesday, Tillerson admitted that US relations with Russia were at a “low point.”
“There is a low level of trust between our two countries,” Tillerson said. “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.”
Much of the tension centered around the chemical weapons attack in Syria last week and the US response to it. President Donald Trump ordered a strike on military installations used by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a major Russian ally.
Tillerson didn’t pin blame on Russia, which is involved in the Syrian civil war and supports the Assad regime, but did insist that evidence from the attack points to the Assad regime. The Syrian government denies responsibility for the attack, and Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested earlier this week that the attack was a “false flag” designed to frame Assad.
“With respect to Russia’s complicity or knowledge of the chemical weapons attack, we have no firm information to indicate that there was any involvement by Russian forces into this attack,” Tillerson said. “What we do know, and we have very firm and high confidence in our conclusions, that the attack was planned and carried out by the regime forces at the direction of Bashar al-Assad.”
Lavrov expressed doubt over this characterization.
He called for an “honest investigation” into the attack and said Russia is “not convinced” by the evidence that purports to show Assad regime culpability.
“There were no signs that would support the statement, the allegation that chemical agents were used there at all,” Lavrov said, adding, “We are 100% sure that if our colleagues at the UN as well as The Hague try to avoid this investigation, this will signify that they are reluctant to find out the truth, but we will insist that the truth will be found.”
Tillerson also insisted that Assad’s rule is “coming to an end” and called on Russia to help transition him out.
“Our view is that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, and they have again brought this on themselves with their conduct in the war these past few years,” Tillerson said. “We discussed our view that Russia, as their closest ally in the conflict, perhaps has the best means of helping Assad recognise this reality.”
But Lavrov stood firm, saying that “removing or ousting” anyone from power was not on Russia’s agenda.
“Talking about the whole of the Syrian government, we want it to be democratic and we want it to be secular as well,” he said. “We want to see all the ethnic groups in the country to feel protected, justly represented in all the branches of government.”
Despite Lavrov’s calls for an “honest investigation” into the chemical weapons attack, Russia on Wednesday vetoed a UN resolution condemning the attack and urging an investigation.
Meanwhile, Putin said Wednesday that trust between the US and Russia had deteriorated under President Donald Trump.
Relations between the two countries have indeed become more adversarial this week.
Senior national security officials at the White House said Tuesday that “it is clear the Russians are trying to cover up what happened” in Syria with a “disinformation campaign” following last week’s chemical weapons attack. The attack killed dozens of people and was the worst the country had seen in years.
The Assad regime has pinned blame on terrorists, but senior White House officials told reporters that they have assessed that neither terror groups nor rebels operating on the ground in Syria have access to sarin gas, which was used in the attack.