US missile strikes launched against government targets in Syria on April 7 are an act of “aggression against a sovereign nation” that will only worsen the situation in the country, Russian President Vladimir Putin said a few hours after the military action against Moscow’s ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The tensions are likely to reflect on talks on April 11-12 between US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Russian leadership, preceding a still unscheduled first official meeting of Putin and US President Donald Trump.
“President Putin considers the US strikes against Syria an aggression against a sovereign country violating the norms of international law, and under a trumped-up pretext at that,” TASS quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying. Russia was warned of the strikes in advance, he confirmed.
As well as harming US-Russian relations and the broader fight against terrorism, Washington’s “total disregard for the use of chemical weapons by terrorists only exacerbates the situation”, Peskov added. His comments underscored the position of Damascus and Moscow that the chemicals used to kill 80 civilians and injure 300 in northwestern Syria on April 5 came from a bombed militant weapons installation.
Hours after US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley blamed Russia for failing to prevent Assad’s forces from using chemical weapons against the population, the US launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from warships in the Mediterranean Sea at the Shayrat airfield near Homs.
The base was directly linked to the attack with nerve agents on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in the northwestern Idlib province on April 5, according to Washington.
Announcing the completion of the strikes from the White House, US President Donald Trump said the military action was “in the vital national security interest” of the US.
Syria also called the operation “an aggression” that killed at least six people, while rebels welcomed the US strikes. Saudi Arabia, which backs the Syrian opposition, hailed the attack as a “courageous decision” by Trump. Iran, which supports Damascus, condemned the strike and described “unilateral action” as “dangerous”.
The Syrian army previously denied the allegations it launched the gas attack, saying “it is not using and has not used any chemical weapons”. Since the attack, Russia and the Syrian Defence Ministry claimed that Syrian planes had destroyed a militant installation that was preparing chemical weapons for use in Aleppo and Iraq.
In an indication of tough talks ahead of him when he visits Moscow, Tillerson said shortly before the US missile strikes that Russia has failed to meet its commitments under the 2013 deal on destroying Syrian chemical weapons.
“Russia has failed to deliver on that commitment from 2013,” the secetary of state told reporters in Florida on April 6. “So either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been incompetent in its ability to deliver.”
After telephone talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on April 6 that also covered the Syrian gas attack, Putin said it was “unacceptable to bring accusations against anyone until a thorough and impartial international investigation was conducted”.
Some kind of unilateral US action against the Syrian government had been indicated by earlier comments by Haley while addressing the UN in New York.
“When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states when we are compelled to take our own action,” the envoy emphasised before the assembly in New York, while castigating Russia for defending him and impeding UN action against him and his government.
“How many more children have to die before Russia cares?” Haley said, displaying photographs of child victims of what experts say is likely to be Sarin gas released two days earlier.
Commenting on her remarks, Kremlin spokesman Peskov told reporters that preventing such tragedies is exactly what Russia is doing in Syria. “Because only by ridding terrorists from Syrian soil can the country bring back calm conditions when children won’t be dying,” TASS news agency quoted him as saying.
The use of chemical weapons “is absolutely inadmissible”, Peskov added. “We believe everything must be done to rule out the possibility of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.”