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US and Russia still far apart over Syria; Moscow vetoes UN resolution

MOSCOW: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin hosted US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the Kremlin on Wednesday, but the rival powers failed to bridge a deep gap of trust.

US president Donald Trump’s White House victory had raised hopes in Moscow that some kind of rapprochement was possible between the former Cold War foes.

Trump had spoken warmly of Russia on the campaign trail, but since he came to office in January ties have chilled and the fallout from the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria last week threw them into crisis.

Hours after the Putin-Tillerson talks ended, Russia used its veto power to block a Western effort at the UN Security Council to condemn the gas attack and push Moscow’s ally President Bashar al Assad to cooperate with international inquiries into the incident.

It was the eighth time during Syria’s six-year-old civil war that Moscow has used its veto power on the Security Council to shield Assad’s government.

Trump envoy Tillerson’s talks with Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have been haunted by the incident that saw the US launch punitive strike against Assad’s forces.

On the alleged attack, and issues like Russian intervention in Ukraine and alleged interference in the US election, the viewpoints of Moscow and Washington remained far apart.

“We frankly discussed the state of US-Russia relations. I expressed that the current state is at a low point,” the US envoy and former oil executive told reporters.

“There is a low level of trust between our two countries. The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship,” he warned.

Lavrov had begun the day with the more combative tone, but at the pair’s joint news conference it was he who stressed the areas where closer cooperation remains possible.

“Despite the quantity of existing problems… there are considerable prospects for joint work,” Lavrov said, after he took Tillerson for private talks with Putin.

“Russia is open to this, open to dialogue with the US in all different areas,” he insisted, citing the capitals’ shared vision of an “uncompromising” war on terrorism.

And he said that Russia was open to restoring a “deconfliction” hotline to enable US and Russian military commanders to avoid accidental clashes over Syria.

But neither side cited much in the way of concrete new avenues of cooperation, beyond establishing a working group to address what Tillerson called “smaller issues”.

The news conference was dominated by points of contention, chiefly Moscow’s deep aversion to US interventionism and Washington’s disgust at the carnage in Syria.

Tillerson was once a familiar and friendly face in Moscow as the chief executive of oil giant ExxonMobil, but he pulled no punches on his first visit as secretary of state.

He restated the US beliefs that Russian hackers and propagandists interfered in the US vote and that Assad’s forces were behind the latest chemical weapons attack.

Missile salvo: Tillerson did play down suggestions from some US officials that Russian forces could have been complicit in last week’s slaughter of 87 civilians in the town of Khan Sheikhun.

But he was firm that only Assad’s forces could have carried out such a strike and insisted that Russia must do more to help strip the regime of its chemical arsenal.

Lavrov parried the accusations, noting that Moscow wants UN weapons investigators to probe not only Khan Sheikhun but also the Syrian air base that US missiles hit in response.

Courtesy : Dawn News

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