Russia says U.S. strikes in Syria an 'illegitimate' attempt to distract from Iraq
U.S. officials say they are looking into whether Russia played a role in Tuesday's chemical attack
Russia's deputy United Nations envoy condemned "illegitimate" U.S. strikes in Syria and said the consequences for regional and international stability could be extremely serious.
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Vladimir Safronkov's comments come after the U.S. launched nearly 60 missiles into Syria, targeting the government-controlled Shayrat airbase.
At a special meeting of the UN on Friday, Safronkov described the U.S. strike — over a deadly toxic gas attack in Syria that left at least 80 people dead — as "attempt to distract attention from the many victims amongst the peaceful population in Iraq and Syria caused by unilateral actions."
Safronkov said Russia is calling on the United States "to immediately cease its aggression" and join efforts to bring peace to Syria and "work together to combat the terrorist threat." He strongly criticized what he called the U.S. "flagrant violation of international law and an act of aggression."
He said Russia firmly stands by the Syrian government, calling it the main force against terrorism and saying it deserves the presumption of innocence in the chemical weapons attack.
But Safronkov offered a way ahead for the Trump administration — stop attacks, pursue a political settlement, and work jointly to combat "the terrorist threat."
The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, openly questioned Russia's role in Syria during an emergency meeting at the world body, saying Russia was supposed to be responsible for removing chemical weapons from Syria.
"It could be that Russia is knowingly allowing chemical weapons to remain in Syria. It could be that Russia has been incompetent in its efforts to remove the chemical weapons. Or, it could be that the Assad regime is playing the Russians for fools, telling them that there are no chemical weapons, all the while stockpiling them on their bases," Haley said.
"The world is waiting for the Russian government to act responsibly in Syria. The world is waiting for Russia to reconsider its misplaced alliance with Bashar Assad."
Later Friday, Syrian warplanes carried out airstrikes on rebel held areas in eastern Homs, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The planes took off from the base that was hit by U.S. cruise missiles.
The extent of the damage to the Shayrat air base was not entirely clear, but the Syrian warplanes had "done the impossible" in order to continue using it for sorties, the Observatory told Reuters.
Strikes send strong message, Spicer says
The White House said on Friday that the strikes send a strong signal to the world, but declined to say whether U.S. President Donald Trump would approve additional strikes or actions against the Bashar al-Assad government.
"I think that the president's actions were very decisive last night and were clear about what he thinks needs to get done," White House spokesperson Sean Spicer told reporters at a briefing.
"First and foremost, the president believes the Syrian government, the Assad regime, should at the minimum agree to abide by the agreements they've made not to use chemical weapons. I think that should be a minimum standard set around the world," Spicer said.
Tensions between Russia and the U.S. were further demonstrated by Russia saying it was cutting a hotline intended to prevent midair incidents over Syria.
The end of the hotline, launched in 2015, means that Russian and U.S. planes could fly dangerously close to each other during combat missions, raising the risk of inadvertent or deliberate clashes in the crowded skies over Syria.
Senior U.S. military officials told The Associated Press on Friday that the U.S. and Russia will maintain the hotline. But Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said the U.S. was informed that Russia would "suspend its obligations" at midnight ET Saturday.
By freezing the information channel between the two potent militaries, Russia is signalling to Washington that it will tolerate no further strikes on Syrian government facilities.
Was Russia part of chemical attack
Meanwhile, senior military officials say the U.S. is looking into whether Russia participated in Syria's chemical weapons attack earlier this week.
The officials say Russia has failed to control the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons.
They say a drone belonging either to Russia or Syria was seen hovering over the site of the chemical weapons attack Tuesday after it happened. The drone returned late in the day as citizens were going to a nearby hospital for treatment. Shortly afterward, officials say the hospital was bombed.
The officials say they believe the hospital attack may have been an effort to cover up evidence of the attack.
Tillerson in Russia next week
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is still scheduled to visit Moscow next week, Interfax news agency cited a Russian foreign ministry spokesperson as saying on Friday.
"Let him come [to Moscow] and tell what strange things they did," Maria Zakharova said, according to Interfax.
With files from Reuters