U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday that Washington has no firm evidence that Russian forces were involved in the chemical weapons attack in Syria.
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The top diplomat spoke after he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow as the two countries traded sharp accusations about the attack, which Washington has blamed on the Assad regime.
In a press briefing after his meetings with Putin and Lavrov, Tillerson said that the Assad family has no role in the future of Syria's governance and that Syrian President Bashar Assad's departure from power should be conducted in an orderly way.
Tillerson added that the current state of Washington's relations with Moscow is "at a low point" and that the ties are marked by serious distrust. He also reiterated Washington's position that the chemical attack was planned, directed and executed by Syrian government forces.
Following his meeting with Tillerson, Lavrov said that Moscow has no intention to "shield anyone" responsible for the chemical attack and that Russia and the U.S. have agreed on the need for the United Nations to investigate the assault.
While Lavrov said that any attempts to topple Assad would only help ISIS, he also claimed that Moscow is not placing its hopes in the Syrian president and aims for a peaceful political process.
Lavrov repeated Moscow's denial of meddling in the U.S. presidential election, saying that the Kremlin has not seen "a single fact, or even a hint at facts" proving the U.S. allegations of Russian interference. He added that if provided, Moscow would consider any such evidence.
Haley blasts Russia
Also on Wednesday evening, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that condemns the chemical attack and demands the Assad regime to cooperate with investigators. The resolution urges the Syrian military to provide the UN with "immediate and unfettered access" to details of their operations on the day of the chemical attack.
Earlier on Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told the Security Council that in regard to the Syrian war, the United States was "ready to bring this conflict to an end," AFP reported.
"We are ready to throw our weight and resources behind diplomacy," the report quoted Haley as saying, adding that Washington's commitment to a diplomatic peace process is not enough and that the U.S. needs "partners who are serious about using their influence" over Assad.
Taking aim at Russia, Haley said Moscow is isolating itself by continuing to support Assad. "To my colleagues from Russia – you are isolating yourselves from the international community every time one of Assad's planes drop another barrel bomb on civilians and every time Assad tries to starve another community to death," Haley said.
A chilly reception
In the first visit by a Trump cabinet official to Russia, Tillerson went to the Kremlin in the early evening to meet with the Russian leader, the U.S. Embassy and the Kremlin said. Though U.S. President Donald Trump has spoken with Putin by phone, the meeting was believed to be the first between Putin and a top member of Trump's administration since the new American president took office in January.
The agenda for the meeting wasn't announced. The two leaders were expected to discuss disagreement about whether Assad or his opposition was responsible for a chemical weapons attack last week that led to U.S. retaliatory cruise missiles. Conflicts over Russia's actions in Ukraine and Russia's alleged interference in the U.S. presidential campaign were also likely topics.
The meeting was steeped in geopolitical intrigue. Neither country said ahead of time whether it would take place or not.
Earlier Wednesday, Russia's top diplomat accused the United States of carrying out an unlawful attack against Assad's forces.
Giving Tillerson a chilly reception, Lavrov said Russia was trying to understand the "real intentions" of the Trump administration. He said Moscow has lots of questions about the "very ambiguous" and "contradictory" ideas emanating from Washington.
"We have seen very alarming actions recently with an unlawful attack against Syria," Lavrov said, referring to the cruise missiles Trump ordered to punish Assad for using chemical weapons. "We consider it of utmost importance to prevent the risks of replay of similar action in the future."
It was an ominous start to Tillerson's visit. The top diplomat conceded the two world powers had "sharp differences" that have obstructed cooperation but voiced optimism that their talks could narrow those differences.
"We both have agreed our lines of communication shall always remain open," Tillerson said.
'This is an animal'
Trump, meanwhile, told Fox Business News that the U.S. had no plans to become more deeply involved in Syria and only did so because of last week's deadly chemical weapons attack that killed dozens. Turkey has said tests showed sarin gas was used.
"Are we going to get involved with Syria? No," Trump said in the interview, which aired Wednesday in the U.S. "But if I see them using gas...we have to do something."
The palpable tension hanging over Tillerson's trip spoke to a widening chasm between the former Cold War foes.
Only weeks ago, it appeared that Trump, who lavishly praised Putin throughout the campaign, was poised for a potentially historic rapprochement with Russia. But any expectations of an easy rapport have crashed into reality as the two countries trade escalating accusations over what happened last week in rebel-held territory in northern Syria.
"Frankly, Putin is backing a person that's truly an evil person," Trump said, referring to Assad. "I think it's very bad for Russia. I think it's very bad for mankind."
Of Assad, Trump added: "This is an animal."
And Putin, who U.S. intelligence agencies say tried to help Trump get elected, insisted that relations with the U.S. had only gone downhill since Trump took office in January.
"The level of trust at the working level, especially at the military level, has not become better but most likely has degraded," Putin said in an interview broadcast Wednesday by state television channel Mir.
Moscow has strenuously objected to Trump's decision to launch 59 U.S. Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base that the U.S. says was used to pummel civilians with nerve gas, resulting in 87 deaths. Russia, Assad's staunchest ally, has insisted that Assad is blameless and that it was actually the rebels responsible for the disbursed chemical weapons.
Intelligence services from several Western countries dispute that claim. The health minister in Turkey, which treated many of the attack's victims and conducted autopsies on others, said Tuesday that test results conducted on victims confirmed sarin gas was used.
DPA contributed to this report.