US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has urged Russia to re-evaluate its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, suggesting that additional American military action against Syria is possible.
In his first televised interview on Fox News Sunday, McMaster said the US will simultaneously fight the Daesh (ISIL) terrorist group in Syria and seek to remove Assad from power.
McMaster said Moscow is “part of the problem” because it is backing Damascus in the Syrian conflict.
“If we would want to appeal rationally to Russia, this is a great opportunity for the Russian leadership to re-evaluate what they’re doing,” he said. “Right now, I think everyone in the world sees Russia as part of the problem.”
The comments came as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson planned to meet with Russian officials this week. Tillerson will be the first official from the administration of US President Donald Trump to visit Moscow.
However, the Kremlin said on Monday that Tillerson will not meet President Vladimir Putin, highlighting tensions between Washington and Moscow.
“We have not announced any such meetings and right now there is no meeting with Tillerson in the president’s diary,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters.
He did not say why Putin was not planning to receive the top US diplomat.
McMaster said the objective of the US missile strike against Syria on Friday was to send a “strong political message to Assad” to stop using chemical weapons.
“We are prepared to do more,” he said. “The president will make whatever decision he thinks is in the best interest of the American people.”
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Two US Navy destroyers fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea at Syria’s al-Shayrat airfield early on Friday, in retaliation for a suspected chemical attack on April 6 that Washington insists was carried out by Syrian fighter jets operating from the base.
The Syrian government has strongly denied responsibility for the gas attack, and there is no evidence that it was behind the assault.
The Trump administration appears split on the policy in Syria.
Tillerson has suggested that Assad’s future was in the hands of the Syrian people, while US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has called for Assad’s ouster.
The Kremlin says it has scheduled no meeting between President Vladimir Putin and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during the latter’s upcoming visit to Moscow.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call on Monday that “no meeting with Tillerson” was “in the president’s diary.”
Tillerson is due to arrive in the Russian capital on Wednesday, where he is expected to have a tense meeting now only with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
While Peskov did not say why Putin would not be receiving Tillerson, a recent US missile strike on a Syrian airbase is highly suspected of being the reason why.
US President Donald Trump, who during his presidential campaign and early in his presidency strongly advocated close engagement with Russia on Syria, ordered the missile strike on the Syrian airbase on Friday, angering Russia.
Russia is a main ally of the Syrian government, and Russian forces were based at the site hit in the US strikes. US officials have said the Russians were given notice in advance of the strike.
While Russia did not employ its sophisticated missile defense systems installed in Syria during the US strike, possibly to avoid direct confrontation, it has been strongly angered by the attack and has said the prospects for a potential enhancement of its ties with the US have been seriously harmed.
In his Monday briefing of reporters, the Kremlin spokesman referred to the US strike and said it was indicative of Washington’s total unwillingness to cooperate on Syria.
Trump has been silent on relations with Russia since the missile strike.
The US has said the strike was carried out in retaliation for an alleged Syrian chemical attack. Moscow and Damascus have both denied that any such attack was carried out.
Peskov also slammed renewed calls by the US for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as unhelpful and insisted that “there is no other alternative” to peace talks for Syria.
Reacting to press reports that Tillerson would use his Moscow visit to press the Kremlin to back away from supporting Assad, Peskov hinted that that would be a non-starter.
“Returning to pseudo-attempts to resolve the crisis by repeating mantras that Assad must step down cannot help sort things out,” he said.
Russia, along with Iran, is providing advisory military assistance to Damascus. Moscow is also carrying out an aerial campaign against extremist militants in Syria.
The Russian snub would make Tillerson “the first [US] secretary of state not to meet with the Russian president or top Soviet leader in his inaugural trip to Moscow in office, according to State Department records and news reports,” The New York Times has said.
Putin often received Tillerson’s predecessor, John Kerry, during his Moscow visits and also met with Tillerson himself when the now-top American diplomat was the executive of the oil giant Exxon Mobil. Putin even personally awarded Tillerson a top Russian state award — the Order of Friendship — in 2013.
It was thus expected that Tillerson would meet Putin in his first trip to Russia as secretary of state.
But even if the US strike had not happened, Tillerson’s visit would have been dominated by thorny issues. Russia and the US have been at odds over such issues as alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, Washington’s claim that Russia is violating a key arms control treaty, and the Ukrainian conflict, among other things.
Iran’s Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani says the recent missile attack by the US against a Syrian army air base was a clear example of the application of the law of the jungle, warning that supporting terrorism will backfire on Washington.
Addressing a meeting with high-ranking judicial officials in Tehran on Monday, Larijani added that claims about the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in the country were only a pretext for the aggressive US act.
He said such unwise and irrational approaches would ultimately turn out to be detrimental to Washington and warned the sponsors of terrorists, particularly the US and some European countries, that supporting terrorism will one day come back to haunt them if they carry on with their double standard policies.
The top Iranian judicial official reiterated the need for the formation of a fact-finding committee to probe the issue of the use of chemical arms in Syria.
“A few years ago, Syria was disarmed of its chemical weapons by the Americans themselves and if there is any doubt about the existence of chemical weapons, a fact-finding committee must be set up to examine this issue rather than the launch of a unilateral military attack in violation of international law,” Larijani said.
“The conscientious know that Western countries are covertly arming and equipping Takfiri [terrorist] groups and pursue their own arrogant objectives under the pretext of fighting terrorism,” he added.
At least 86 people were killed in a gas attack in the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib Province. Anti-Damascus militants and Western countries rushed to blame Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the incident, without providing any evidence to support their accusations.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Saturday called for the formation of an “impartial” international fact-finding committee to look into the alleged chemical attack in Idlib.
“An international fact-finding mission should be formed to shed light on the issue,” the president said.
The Iranian judiciary chief further warned that the pursuit of selective approaches to terrorism would escalate the terrorists’ criminal acts across the world, urging serious and real measures to counter the vicious phenomenon.
He urged regional countries supporting terrorism as well as the US and some European states to act wisely and stop sponsoring terrorists and arming them.
US military officials said 59 Tomahawk missiles were fired from warships deployed to the Mediterranean at Syria’s Shayrat airfield on Friday in response to the Idlib attack.