US, Russia envoys speak after Syria chemical weapons accusations

US, Russia envoys speak after Syria chemical weapons accusations
US and Russia's top diplomats attempted to ease tensions after Washington accused Moscow of being responsible for chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
3 min read
25 January, 2018
Sergei Lavrov [L] and Rex Tillerson [R] spoke in a telephone conversation on Wednesday [Gety]

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke on the telephone Wednesday in an effort to ease US-Russian tensions over Syria, North Korea and Ukraine.

The call came less than 24 hours after Tillerson accused Russia of being responsible for chemical weapons attacks in Syria — a charge that draw a furious response from Moscow. That subject apparently was not raised during their conversation.

The State Department and the Russian ministry said the diplomats discussed their countries' roles in the crises. The US said in a statement that the pair talked about Russia's role in pressing Syrian President Bashar Assad's government to participate in UN-led peace talks.

According to Russia's account, Tillerson and Lavrov spoke about military operations in Syria's north, where Turkey is attacking US-backed Kurdish forces, along with preparations for the next round of UN talks.

Lavrov "emphasised that only Syrians themselves have the right to determine the future of their country," the ministry said.

On North Korea, both stressed that Kim Jong Un's government must comply with UN Security Council resolutions regarding nuclear and ballistic missile testing, according to the accounts.

Moscow said Lavrov "warned against the escalation of tensions ... resulting from aggressive rhetoric directed against North Korea, the creation of blocs against it and threats of sea blockade."

That appeared to refer to President Donald Trump's blunt comments regarding North Korea and Kim; a U.S. and Canada-led meeting this month of diplomats from countries that sent troops to the UN force in the Korean War; and US proposals to board ships bound for North Korea to search for contraband.

Tillerson also told Lavrov that Russia needed to do more to rein in separatists that it backs in eastern Ukraine, where fighting has once again flared, according to the State Department. The Russian account did not mention Ukraine as a topic of conversation.

Although the call appeared to have resolved little, the fact that it happened at all might be seen as a success, given the anger with which Russian officials reacted to Tillerson's chemical weapons allegations.

Tillerson said at a conference Tuesday in Paris that Moscow "ultimately bears responsibility for the victims" of chemical weapons attacks in Syria since it became militarily involved in 2015. He accused Russia of violating its own commitments under a 2013 US-Russia agreement to rid Syria of its chemical weapons stockpiles and an international treaty that bars their use.

In response, Russia accused the US of promoting unverified reports about chemical weapons attacks in Syria in order to cloud Moscow's latest peace initiative. Russia's deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, accused the U.S. of promoting "rigged, unverified reports" about chemical weapons.

In interview with Russia's Interfax news agency, Ryabkov called the charges "dirty and mendacious" and an "outrageous example of the American side's manipulating facts."