The U.S. on Tuesday sharply rejected Russian claims that the chemical gas sarin, which killed dozens of people in Syria last week, came from an airstrike on a rebel-held munitions depot rather than a deliberate attack by Syrian fighters on civilians.
National security officials at a White House briefing accused Moscow, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, of “a very clear campaign to obfuscate the nature of the attack.” They said the chemical weapons in the April 4 attack landed in the middle of a street — as shown by charring of the roadway — not on a building.
The officials, speaking on background without direct attribution, said Syria “has not come clean” on its collection of chemical weapons, despite a 2013 agreement to dismantle its stockpile.
“We know the Syrian regime has sarin gas,” one official said. “We are confident the rebels [fighting Assad’s government] don’t have sarin.”
The official called the evidence “an opportunity for Russia to end its disinformation campaign.” But later, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said there is “no consensus” among U.S. intelligence officials that Russia colluded with Syria in carrying out the attack.
The White House officials spoke hours after Turkey announced that tests have confirmed the deadly nerve gas sarin was used in the attacks on rebels that killed about 90 people and sickened hundreds more.
Ankara’s health minister said Tuesday the conclusion was reached after blood and urine samples were examined during autopsies on three victims of the gas attacks that were brought from Syria’s Idlib province. The World Health Organization and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons participated in the post-mortem examinations.
Confirmation of the cause of the deaths came as Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a U.N. investigation of the chemical weapons attack, which prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to launch 59 missiles on the Syrian air base Washington believes was used to carry out the mission.
Putin, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, accused the United States of “provocations” to blame Syria for the chemical weapons attack. Without offering any evidence, Putin said Washington is planning a new missile launch, including near the capital, Damascus, after faking chemical weapons attacks there.
“We have information that a similar provocation is being prepared … in other parts of Syria including in the southern Damascus suburbs where they are planning to again plant some substance and accuse Syrian authorities” of using chemical weapons, Putin said.
The Russian leader added, “It reminds me of the events in 2003 when U.S. envoys to the [U.N.] Security Council were demonstrating what they [erroneously] said were chemical weapons found in Iraq. We have seen it all already.”
Tillerson in Moscow
Putin’s rebuke of the United States came as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Moscow for talks Wednesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Tillerson, the highest-level U.S. official to meet with Russian officials since Trump took office in January, said he hopes Moscow will abandon its support for Assad after last week’s deadly chemical attack.
“We want to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people,” Tillerson said. “Russia can be a part of that future and play an important role. Or Russia can maintain its alliance” with Syria and Iran.
There are no scheduled plans for Tillerson to meet with Putin, but Russian media outlets, citing unnamed sources, said such a meeting will occur.