World

US to press Russia over Syrian chemical weapons

WASHINGTON The US has stepped up pressure on Russia to rein in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, warning that any further chemical attacks would be "very damaging" to their relationship and suggesting there can be no peace in Syria while Mr Assad remains in power.

US President Donald Trump's top advisers took to Sunday television talk shows to set the stage for a diplomatic confrontation in Moscow this week when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

It will be their first face-to-face encounter since US cruise missiles slammed into a Syrian air base early Friday (Damascus time) in retaliation for a suspected sarin gas attack on April 4 that killed at least 87 civilians in the rebel-held Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun.

In Teheran, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the US had made a "strategic mistake" and vowed that Iran "will not leave the field... in the face of threats".

And a joint operations centre in Damascus that includes Iran, Russia and Lebanese Hezbollah threatened reprisals.

"We will react firmly to any aggression against Syria and to any infringement of red lines, whoever carries them out," it said in a statement carried on the website of Al-Watan, a newspaper close to the Syrian regime.

Mr Tillerson said the chemical attack had been preceded by two others in March.

The presence of Russian advisers at the airfield used to launch the attack raised questions about how they could not have known about Syria's chemical weapons.

Mr Tillerson stopped short of accusing the Russians of complicity.

"But clearly they've been incompetent and perhaps they've just simply been outmanoeuvred by the Syrians," he said on ABC's programme This Week.

"Absolutely they're complicit," Mr Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on the same show.

"Russian intelligence may not be as good as ours, but it's good enough to know the Syrians had chemical weapons, were using chemical weapons."

If Syria carries out any further chemical attacks, "that is going to be clearly very damaging to US-Russian relations", Mr Tillerson warned.

"I do not believe that the Russians want to have worsening relationships with the US, but it's going to take a lot of discussion and a lot of dialogue to better understand what is the relationship that Russia wishes to have with the US," he added. - AFP

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