The United States has concluded that Russia knew ahead of time about the horrific Syrian chemical attack that killed more than 80 people, including dozens of children, just as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is due to travel to Russia for tense diplomatic meetings.
The shocking development could even further hurt relations between the former Cold War enemies.
A senior U.S. official said the Russians operated a drone that was flying over a hospital in Syria where victims were beginning to rush in to get treatment after the poison gas was released, according to The Associated Press. Hours later, a Russian-made fighter jet bombed the hospital in an effort, U.S. officials believe, to cover up the usage of chemical weapons.
The U.S. official said the surveillance drone was no coincidence and that Russia must have known the chemical attack was coming.
The revelation comes just days after the United States launched 59 Tomahawk missiles, significantly damaging a Syrian airbase in an attempt to send a message to President Bashar Assad after what critics felt was weakness from former President Barack Obama, who opted not to act after a similar 2013 chemical weapons attack.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer dismissed reports that Syria was still able to use the air base, even after the bombings.
“As a PR stunt, they took some pre-fueled planes, pushed them over to make it look like nothing is — but make no mistake about it, their radar capability is gone, their fueling capability is gone, and a good chunk of their aircraft is gone,” Spicer said during yesterday’s White House press briefing. “That’s a huge success.”
Tillerson yesterday refused to rule out the possibility that the United States would strike Syria again or take similar action in other hot spots around the globe.
“We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” Tillerson said.
The White House has yet to fully explain its doctrine toward intervention in Syria, and Spicer appeared to add to the confusion by suggesting the use of barrel bombs could constitute further military action.
“The sight of people being gassed and blown away by barrel bombs ensures that if we see this kind of action again, we hold open the possibility of future action,” Spicer said.
Assad reportedly has used thousands of barrel bombs in the last year alone.
Later, the White House appeared to backtrack, suggesting Spicer’s comments didn’t represent a change in policy, but an example of Trump’s belief to keep all options on the table.
All of this is sure to only complicate what was already slated to be a tense trip to Russia for Tillerson amid ongoing probes into the country’s meddling in the U.S. presidential campaign.
Tillerson is due to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, but there are no plans yet to meet with President Vladimir Putin. The U.S. is urging Russia to stop backing Assad in the ongoing and bloody Syrian civil war.
Tillerson was among the foreign ministers from the Group of Seven industrialized nations who met in Lucca, Italy, yesterday to discuss a united response to the Syrian gas attacks.
Tillerson won’t be the only Trump administration official traveling to a troubled region in the next week.
Vice President Mike Pence is expected to arrive in Seoul, South Korea, on Sunday, spending Easter with troops from both the U.S. and Korea. He also will meet with acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo-ahn.
The aircraft carrier Carl Vinson was among several warships ordered to head to the Korean Peninsula amid growing concerns over North Korea missiles tests.
Herald wire services contributed to this report.
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