Move to clarify position amid confusion over White House policy on Damascus and Moscow
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Donald Trump said the US would not enter the Syrian civil war, in a bid to clarify his policy in the wake of confusion that followed his missile strike on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Speaking to Fox News, the US president said America was “not going into Syria”. His remarks followed days of confusion over how the US intends to proceed with respect to the war-torn country and also towards Moscow, which supports the regime in Damascus.
James Mattis, US defence secretary, said on Tuesday that US policy on Syria had not changed in the wake of the strike, which Mr Trump launched after he claimed the Syrian regime had attacked civilians with chemical weapons.
“Our military policy in Syria has not changed. Our priority remains the defeat of Isis,” Mr Mattis said at the Pentagon.
Asked whether the Trump administration was sending mixed messages over whether it wanted to see regime change in Syria, Mr Mattis responded: “The strike?.?.?.?was not a harbinger of some change in our military campaign.”
Mr Mattis also said he did not believe tensions between Washington and Moscow over the gas attack and the strike would escalate out of control. “I’m confident the Russians will act in their own best interests, and there’s nothing in their best interests to say they want this situation to go out of control,” Mr Mattis said.
Mr Trump and his defence secretary were speaking hours after Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, arrived in Moscow amid mounting tensions between the Kremlin and the White House
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that Washington was being duped into military attacks against the Syrian regime, and that the gas attacks in north-western Syria had been “provocations”. The White House responded by accusing Russia of trying to cover up Syrian actions during the chemical attack.
In a statement, the Trump administration said Moscow’s claims “fit with a pattern of deflecting blame from the [Syrian] regime and attempting to undermine the credibility of its opponents”. It added that Russia “spins out multiple, conflicting accounts in order to create confusion and sow doubt within the international community”.
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said “there was no consensus within the intelligence community” that Russia had advanced knowledge of the attack. But he warned that Russia was “getting on the wrong side of history in a really bad way”.
“In this particular case, it’s no question that Russia is isolated. They have aligned themselves with North Korea, Syria, Iran,” he said. “That’s not exactly a group of countries you’re looking to hang out with. With the exception of Russia, they are all failed states.”
Mr Putin has defied an Anglo-American call to end his backing for Mr Assad, who US and European allies have blamed for last week’s attack.
Turkish authorities, which have carried out autopsies on some victims, said on Tuesday that sarin had been used in the bombing.
On the eve of Mr Tillerson’s meetings with Russian officials on Wednesday, Mr Putin continued to insist Mr Assad was not behind the attack, saying Moscow had information “from different sources” that it was carried out by rebel groups intent on dragging the US deeper into the conflict.
“[S]imilar provocations — and I can’t call it anything other than that — are being prepared in other parts of Syria?.?.?.?where they are planning to again plant some substance and accuse the Syrian authorities of using it,” Mr Putin said at an appearance with visiting Italian President Sergio Mattarella.
The claims highlighted the scale of the challenge facing Mr Tillerson, who cultivated relations with Mr Putin during his tenure as chief of ExxonMobil. His diplomatic task was complicated in a pre-trip meeting with his Group of 7 counterparts in Italy, where allies were divided over whether to impose new sanctions on the Kremlin for the chemical attack.
After two days of talks in the Italian town of Lucca, G7 foreign ministers called for a “credible political transition in Syria” but stopped short of repeating the US-British call for Russia to ditch its alliance with Mr Assad, and rejected new sanctions.
Instead, a communiqué urged Moscow to “promote a real and genuine political process” in Syria — a much softer line than Mr Tillerson had taken in the run-up to the trip, when he accused Russia of being either “complicit” in the chemical attack or “incompetent” for failing to reign in their Syrian allies.
Ministers from the G7 countries at their meeting in Lucca, Italy, on Tuesday © AFP
The White House rejected suggestions the attacks were the result of Syrian regime forces hitting an opposition weapons depot. One official said the US had evidence that Syrian officials connected to a chemical weapons programme were present at Shayrat in the lead up to the attack, and on the day itself.
Another US official said the Syrian regime appeared to have calculated they needed to use chemical weapons because of manpower shortages caused by ongoing military operations across the country.
After the G7 meeting, Mr Tillerson took a more measured tone, suggesting Russian’s backing for Syria would damage Moscow’s interests and urging Mr Putin “to realign with the US with other western countries and Middle East countries”.
In an echo of Obama-era rhetoric on Syria, which maintained the US was not actively seeking regime change without a political solution, Mr Tillerson said “the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end”.
US allies like Italy, which hosted the G7 meeting, and Germany maintain that a tough stance on both sanctions and regime change could backfire and make it harder for Russia to bring Mr Assad back to the UN-led negotiating table.
“Russia must not be isolated,” said Angelino Alfano, Italy’s foreign minister.
The G7 ministers backed last week’s US air strike calling it a “carefully calibrated, limited in scope response to this war crime”.
The Russian foreign ministry said Moscow was prepared for any course of events but preferred to work towards constructive co-operation instead of confrontation.
It particularly stressed the risk of conflict relating to North Korea, days after the US deployed an aircraft carrier into waters close to the Korean peninsula.
“We are very worried about what Washington has in mind with regard to North Korea as it has hinted at the possibility of a scenario of unilateral force,” the ministry said.
Additional reporting by Henry Mance in London