Tillerson visit eases tensions with Russia
Russian and American diplomats agreed to restore dialogue over the crisis in Syria last night following a week of escalating tensions that culminated in Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin exchanging barely veiled insults.
Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State, and Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, announced they would restore a military hotline designed to avoid their forces clashing in Syria and would both support a UN investigation into last week's poison gas attack. The commitment came as Russia vetoed a UN resolution calling on the Syrian regime to co-operate with such an investigation, saying it was counter-productive.
The statements followed marathon talks in Moscow, including a two-hour closed-door discussion with Mr Putin in the Kremlin in which Mr Tillerson attempted to persuade the Russian president to abandon his support for the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
"I expressed the view our relations are at a low point," Mr Tillerson, who is the first Trump administration official to meet Mr Putin, said of his conversation with the Russian president. "The world's foremost nuclear powers cannot have this relationship," he added.
Moscow and Washington were plunged into the latest crisis when Mr Trump ordered a missile strike against a Syrian airbase after a poison gas attack in rebel-held Idlib province killed at least 86 people on April 4.
Earlier, Mr Putin expressed frustration with Mr Trump. "It can be said that the level of trust at the working level, especially at the military level, has not become better but most likely has degraded," Mr Putin on the state TV channel Mir.
The White House had accused the Kremlin of attempting to cover up the gas attack. "Frankly, Putin is backing a person that's truly an evil person," Mr Trump told the Fox Business Network, referring to Mr Assad. "I think it's very bad for Russia. I think it's very bad for mankind." Of Mr Assad, Mr Trump added: "This is an animal."
Mr Tillerson and Mr Lavrov announced a number of measures to cool the confrontation. However, they were clear that fundamental differences remained about Mr Assad's future and guilt for the gas attack.
"We discussed at length the future role for Assad, whether it is in a future political process or not," Mr Tillerson said about his meeting with Mr Putin.
"The US view is that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end. They have brought that upon themselves. We put forward the view that Russia is perhaps in a position to help Mr Assad recognise that," he added. Mr Tillerson said evidence that Assad's regime planned and carried out the attack was "conclusive". Mr Lavrov said there was no evidence of regime guilt for the attack and flatly rejected calls for Russia to collaborate in regime change, saying "we already knew all too well how this ends".
Mr Lavrov's comments came shortly before Russia vetoed a draft UN Security Council resolution demanding the Syrian government co-operate with an investigation of the chemical attack. In a heated debate before the vote, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, said Russia would find itself "isolated" if it failed to take action.
"It is long past time for Russia to stop covering for Assad and for Russia to push for peace and not be part of the problem," Mrs Haley said. Britain's envoy to the UN said tests at the chemical laboratory at Porton Down had shown the attack on the village of Khan Sheikhoun involved "sarin or a sarin-like substance".
"The United Kingdom therefore shares the US assessment that it is highly likely that the regime was responsible for a sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April," Matthew Rycroft told the session.