Meeting between top US and Russian diplomats tense

(April 12) The meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was far from friendly. Later, Tillerson also met with Russian president Putin.

Lavrov warned Tillerson publicly against any further U.S. military strikes on the Syrian regime. No meeting with Russian president Putin was scheduled although after being kept waiting for two hours he finally did have a long meeting with Putin that lasted about two hours. Tillerson had a friendly relationship with Putin and Russia while he headed the oil giant Exxon but there was no friendliness on exhibit publicly at this meeting. Tillerson told reporters: “There is a low level of trust between our two countries. The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.” Although Putin had a somewhat frosty relationship with Obama and Trump promised during his campaign that he would promote better relationships with Russia, Putin said: "One could say that the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military level, has not improved, but rather has deteriorated."
While Russia still claims that Assad was not guilty of the chemical attack near Idlib in Syria, Trump has not only blamed Assad but US officials have suggested that Russia was complicit knew of the attack and bombed a hospital in an attempt to cover up what happened. At the meeting, Tillerson stepped back from that accusation somewhat:Tillerson has in recent days blasted Russia for incompetence or complicity in the Syrian chemical attack, saying Moscow was not living up to the terms of a 2013 deal to help eliminate Assad’s stockpile of such weapons. But when pressed Wednesday, Tillerson said the U.S. had “no firm information to indicate that there was any involvement by Russia” in the specific attack on Idlib.
Trump has been trying to avoid the issue of Russian influence and interference in the election which he won. He has changed his tune entirely on Syria. During the election campaign he resolved not to become involved in costly foreign wars such as that in Syria. However, after the alleged chemical attack by Assad, he bombed Assad's airbase and now is returning to a position of supporting regime change, after just giving up the policy. As a result, instead of this meeting being the start of a detente between Russia and the U.S. it was a tense affair with neither side budging from their main positions. They both did agree that they should fight against the Islamic State but that is about all except that they would again activate mechanisms to ensure that U.S.-coalition, Syrian and Russian planes did not collide over Syria.
Tillerson held firm to the U.S. position that Assad was to blame for the chemical attack, while Lavrov just as firmly held that Assad was not responsible and that the gases could have been the result of the bombing of a rebel warehouse that contained chemicals stored by the rebels, or that somehow the rebels could have staged the event in an attempt to blame Assad and gain the support of the U.S. and other western countries for their cause. A variant on the Russian version is set out by retired U.S. intelligence officer Colonel Patrick Lang. Lang argues that the US had been contacted by the Russians and knew they intended to attack the chemical storage warehouse. Tillerson said: “That the recent chemical weapons attack carried out in Syria was planned, it was directed and executed by Syrian regime forces and we're quite confident of that. It's important that Assad’s departure is done in an orderly way so that certain interests and constituencies that he represents feel they have been represented at the negotiating table for a political solution.” Lavrov put forth the Russian position: "With regard to the use of chemicals in the territory controlled by the opposition, on numerous occasions the Syrian government and the Syrian servicemen have given us absolute evidence about the use of chemical weapons. This was not some kind of distant information but information from the site.” It should be noted that both parties agree that there was a Syrian attack on the site. The disagreement is whether the Assad government carried out a chemical attack.
In other developments, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem is next to visit Moscow from April 13-15 for talks with Lavrov. Maria Zakharova a spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry said that the foreign minister of Iran would meet with the two on April 14 for a three-way talk. No doubt the three will be discussing a response to the actions of the U.S.


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