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Tillerson faults Russia for not enforcing Syria chemical weapon pact

April 11, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
National flags of Russia and the U.S. fly at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow, Russia. Photo by Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President Trump’s top diplomat is now in Russia at a moment of high tension. It centers on last week’s U.S. military strike on Syria, after the regime launched a chemical weapons attack against its own people.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports on this day’s events.

MARGARET WARNER: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Moscow this evening on the heels of some tough talk about Syria at the Group of 7 meeting in Italy.

REX TILLERSON, U.S. Secretary of State: Russia has really aligned itself with the Assad regime, the Iranians and Hezbollah. Is that a long-term alliance that serves Russia’s interest? Or would Russia prefer to realign with the United States, with other Western countries and Middle East countries who are seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis?

MARGARET WARNER: U.S.-Russian tensions surged after last Tuesday’s chemical attack, which killed more than 80 people in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province. The U.S. responded with cruise missile strikes on a Syrian air base Thursday.

Tillerson again today faulted Russia for failing to enforce a deal it helped negotiate in 2013 to rid Syria of all chemical weapons. In their communique today, the G7 ministers said they were shocked and horrified by the attack, but they decided against further actions for now.

Speaking in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin likened the allegations about Syria to false U.S. claims in 2003 that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. He said he expects more such incidents.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russian President (through interpreter): We have intelligence from various sources that similar provocations are being prepared in other regions of Syria, including the southern suburbs of Damascus, where they are planning to plant chemicals and blame the Syrian government for using them.

MARGARET WARNER: Hours later, White House officials accused Moscow of attempting to cover up Syria’s culpability with — quote — “false narratives.” They said satellite and open source imagery establishes Syria was responsible, and disproves Russia’s claims that the gas was released by a government strike on a rebel depot.

A senior U.S. official had said Monday there’s evidence Russia knew ahead of time about the chemical attack, but White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer walked that back today.

SEAN SPICER, White House Press Secretary: There’s no consensus within the intelligence community that there was involvement.

MARGARET WARNER: At the same time, Spicer’s own words proved a distraction for the White House.

SEAN SPICER: We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. You know, you had a — you know, someone as despicable of Hitler who didn’t even sink to the — to using chemical weapons.

MARGARET WARNER: When challenged, he acknowledged that Hitler gassed millions of Jews and others in death camps. And Spicer later clarified his remarks in a statement, saying he was in no way trying to minimize the Holocaust.

Meantime, at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Central Command’s top general, Joseph Votel, reiterated that the U.S. focus would be the fight against ISIS.

Mattis was asked why the U.S. acted after the chemical attack, but not after conventional strikes that kill Syrian civilians.

JAMES MATTIS, U.S. Secretary of Defense: There is a limit, I think, to what we can do. We knew that we could not stand passive on this, but it was not a statement that we could enter full-fledged, full-bore into the most complex civil war probably raging on the planet.

MARGARET WARNER: For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Margaret Warner.

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