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Politics

At a 'low point,' US and Russia back opposing visions on Syria's Assad

The US secretary of state said Assad's reign "is coming to an end," a vision Russia's foreign minister did not indulge in. Russia has vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to probe a chemical weapons attack in Syria.

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Tense meeting in Moscow

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday said US-Russia relations are at a "low point," after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Tensions between Moscow and Washington have been exacerbated by US President Donald Trump's order to fire cruise missiles at a Syrian military facility believed to be the launch pad for a chemical weapons attack that killed 87 civilians, including 31 children.

"I expressed the view that the current state of US-Russia relations is at a low point. There is a low level of trust between our two countries. The world's two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship," Tillerson told reporters after the meeting.

Lavrov alleged that attempts had been made to "prevent us from cooperating and even raise tensions," without referring to the catalyst.

"We believe that this approach is short-sighted, particularly because history has shown that when Moscow and Washington cooperate, not only our peoples but the whole world benefits from it," he added.

Lavrov and Tillerson announced the establishment of a task force comprising foreign policy officials charged with addressing issues and making progress toward stabilizing relations. But the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remained a divider, with both sides backing opposite visions.

Syria: War crimes charges 'possible'

Tillerson told reporters that the "reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, and they have again brought this on themselves with their conduct" over the course of the conflict.

"Russia as their closest ally in the conflict perhaps has the best means of helping Assad recognize this reality," he said, adding that the Syrian president's departure should be done in "an orderly way."

Lavrov noted that Assad's fate "is one of the issues that Russia and the United States view differently," offering examples in which regime change failed and created further chaos in conflict-stricken countries, including Iraq and Libya.

Russia joined the Syrian conflict in September 2015, providing air support for Syrian government forces it says are fighting terrorist groups in the country. However, Moscow's involvement was largely seen as a means to bolster Assad's regime amid a protracted, multi-faceted conflict.

Asked about possible war crimes charges for Assad, Tillerson said mounting evidence that Assad's regime has engaged in war crimes could reach a threshold to bring a case against the Syrian president.

In Syria, more than 300,000 people have been killed and half the population displaced since 2011, when government forces launched a brutal crackdown against peaceful protesters calling for Assad to release political prisoners and step down.

Russia vetoes UN chemical weapons probe

Meanwhile in New York, Russia voted against a US-backed resolution to investigate a suspected chemical weapons attack in the Syrian province of Idlib.

Vladimir Safronkov, Russia's deputy ambassador to the UN, said the resolution did "not serve a useful purpose," minutes after Lavrov had called for an "independent" probe into the attack.

Matthew Rycroft, the UK's ambassador to the UN, criticized Russia's move in a statement following the vote, saying it undermined international attempts at justice.

"This is the eight time Russia has used its veto to protect the Syrian regime," Rycroft said. "Russia cannot possibly claim that it opposes the use of chemical weapons."

Earlier, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, addressed her Russian colleagues, saying: "You are isolating yourselves from the international community every time one of Assad's planes drop another barrel bomb on civilians and every time Assad tries to starve another community to death."

ls/kms (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)

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