WASHINGTON – Trump administration officials on Sunday blamed Russian inaction for enabling a deadly poison gas attack against Syrian civilians last week as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson prepared to explain to Moscow a U.S. retaliatory missile strike.
Tillerson said Syria was able to execute the attack, which killed scores of people, because Moscow had failed to carry out a 2013 agreement to secure and destroy chemical weapons in Syria.
White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said Syria’s “sponsors,” Russia and Iran, were enabling President Bashar Assad’s “campaign of mass murder against his own civilians.”
But Tillerson, who is expected to visit Moscow on Wednesday for talks with Russian officials, said on ABC’s “This Week” program there was “no change” to the U.S. military posture toward Syria.
“I think the real failure here has been Russia’s failure to live up to its commitments under the chemical weapons agreements that were entered into in 2013,” Tillerson said.
“The failure related to the recent strike and the recent terrible chemical weapons attack in large measure is a failure on Russia’s part to achieve its commitment to the international community,” he added.
U.S. President Donald Trump ordered cruise missile strikes on a Syrian air base after he blamed Assad for the chemical attack, which killed at least 70 people, many of them children, in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun. The Syrian government has denied it was behind the attack.
Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” McMaster said the United States would take further action in Syria if necessary.
“We’re prepared to do more. In fact, we were prepared to do more two days ago,” McMaster said. “The president will make whatever decision he thinks is in the best interests of the American people.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani said in a phone call that aggressive U.S. actions against Syria were not permissible and violated international law, the Kremlin said.
McMaster said Russian leaders were supporting “a murderous regime” and their actions would dictate the future of U.S.-Russian relations.
“Do they want it to be a relationship of competition and potential conflict,” McMaster said. “Or do they want it to be a relationship in which we can find areas of cooperation that are in our mutual interest?”
Tillerson stopped short of accusing Russia of direct involvement in planning or carrying out the attack, saying he had not seen “any hard evidence” to suggest Moscow was an accomplice to Assad.
But he said the United States expected Russia to take a tougher stance by rethinking its alliance with Assad because “every time one of these horrific attacks occurs, it draws Russia closer into some level of responsibility.”
The U.S. military strikes against Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons are a warning to other nations, including North Korea, that “a response is likely” if they pose a danger, Tillerson said on Sunday.
As a U.S. Navy strike group headed toward the Korean Peninsula, Tillerson said China agrees that action is necessary to address North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, following last week’s meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Asked if Friday’s strikes against Syria were a message to North Korea, Tillerson told ABC’s This Week: “The message that any nation can take is, ‘If you violate international norms, if you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken.'”
“In terms of North Korea,” he added, “we’ve been very clear that our objective is a denuclearized Korea Peninsula.”
In a separate interview, Tillerson told CBS’ “Face the Nation”: “President Xi clearly understands, and I think agrees, that the situation has intensified and has reached a certain level of threat that action has to be taken.”
Trump will soon review options for removing the “threat” posed by North Korean missiles, White House national security adviser McMaster said on Sunday.
North Korean officials, including leader Kim Jong Un, have repeatedly indicated an intercontinental ballistic missile test or something similar could be coming, possibly as soon as April 15, the 105th birthday of North Korea’s founding president and celebrated annually as “the Day of the Sun.”
Reuters was first to report on Saturday that the Navy strike group Carl Vinson, whose flagship is a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier of that name, will make its way toward the Korean Peninsula from Singapore as a show of force after Pyongyang tested a liquid-fueled Scud missile this month.
“It’s prudent to do it, isn’t it?” McMaster said of the deployment on “Fox News Sunday.”
“This is a rogue regime that is now a nuclear-capable regime, and President Xi and President Trump agreed that that is unacceptable, that what must happen is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” he said.
A U.S. national security review of options on North Korea include economic and military measures. But they lean more toward sanctions and increased pressure on Beijing to rein in its neighbor.
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