Lavrov to meet Trump in Washington, Kremlin confirms

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will meet with Donald Trump in Washington during his two-day trip to the US, the Kremlin confirmed on Wednesday. The minister is currently holding talks with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

 
© Sputnik

Lavrov will discuss cooperation between the two countries in combating terrorism, as well as the issues touched on by President Vladimir Putin and Trump during their recent telephone conversation, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday.

The closed door meeting will take place at 10:30am in the Oval Office, according to the White House. Lavrov arrived in the US late Tuesday on a two-day working visit which include talks with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Lavrov and Tillerson shook hands in front of reporters before the start of their meeting.

“I want to welcome Foreign Minister Lavrov to the State Department and express my appreciation for him making the trip to Washington so we could continue our dialogue and our exchange of views that began in Moscow on a very broad range of topics,” Tillerson said.

One reporter asked the Russian foreign minister to comment on the firing of FBI Director James Comey.

“Was he fired? You’re kidding!” Lavrov said, leaving the room.

@RT_com 'Was he fired? You're kidding! You're kidding!': Lavrov is asked if Comey's firing casts a shadow over his visit https://on.rt.com/8b8i

The encounter will be one of the highest-level contacts between Trump and the Russian government since the Republican took office in January. Earlier, a senior US official speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that the agenda of the Trump-Lavrov meeting would entail Syria as well as US-Russian relations and other global issues.

Tillerson visited Russia on April 12 and held talks with both Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin, with Trump saying the Secretary of State had done “tremendous work” in Moscow.

In late April, Putin noted that Trump had so far failed to make good on his campaign promises to seek better relations with Russia, adding that the level of trust between Moscow and Washington has even “degraded” since Obama left office.

READ MORE: Lavrov to meet Tillerson in Washington DC to talk Syria & Ukraine on May 10

However, last week, Trump and Putin spoke by phone where among other things they discussed the ongoing Syrian conflict.

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US-led coalition warplanes banned from Syria safe zones – Russian envoy

The four safe zones to be established in Syria will be closed for flights by US-led coalition warplanes, said the Russian envoy to the Astana peace talks, where the zones were agreed upon.

“As for [the coalition] actions in the de-escalation zones, starting from now those zones are closed for their flights,” Aleksandr Levrentyev told journalists in the Kazakh capital.

He added that the flight ban was not part of the memorandum establishing the safe zones, but assured the coalition would not fly over them.

“As guarantors we will be tracking all actions in that direction,” he remarked. “Absolutely no flights, especially by the international coalition, are allowed. With or without prior notification. The issue is closed.”

He added that the US-led coalition would continue airstrikes near Raqqa, the Syrian stronghold of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), near some towns near the Euphrates River and close to the city of Deir ez-Zor.

The Russian Foreign Ministry was less definitive on the alleged ban of US warplanes, stating that “these issues are being discussed at the military level.”

On Thursday, a memorandum was signed in Astana establishing four “safe zones” in Syria, where so-called “moderate opposition” fighters are expected to stay safe from airstrikes and keep jihadist groups out. The zones are set in provinces of Idlib, Latakia and Homs, as well as parts of Aleppo.

Russia, Iran and Turkey serve as guarantors of the arrangement, which carries hopes of deescalating violence in the war-torn country.

READ MORE: UN chief welcomes Syria de-escalation zones brokered by Russia, Turkey & Iran

The move was cheered by the United Nations and welcomed with reservations by Washington.

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Putin: I discussed de-escalation zones in Syria with Trump, Erdogan

Russian President Vladimir Putin says he has discussed introducing de-escalation zones in Syria with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during talks in Sochi on Wednesday and with US President Donald Trump in a phone call the previous day.

Consultations with Tehran and Damascus have also been held on the issue, Putin said.

"For the development of the political process [in Syria], a ceasefire must be provided... Russia, Turkey and Iran have all the time been thinking of how to secure this practice of a ceasefire. One of the methods is creating safe zones, or de-escalation zones," Putin said on Wednesday during a joint press conference with Turkish President Erdogan in Sochi.

Moscow has already conducted "preliminary consultations" with Damascus and Tehran on the matter, Putin said, adding that the issue has also been discussed with US President Trump, who appears to support the idea of safe zones.

"We all reason from [a position] that mechanisms to guarantee the end of bloodshed and provision for the beginning of a political dialogue must be created," the Russian president said, adding that Turkey also fully supports this position.

However, the different sides in the Syrian conflict should themselves make "the final decision," Putin added.

"In the end, only they are in charge of their country's fate. On our side, we – Russia, Turkey and Iran – as guarantors of a ceasefire, will make everything for such mechanisms to improve and be efficient," he told the media.

READ MORE: Putin, Trump speak by phone, discuss Syria, N. Korea – Kremlin

Moscow and Ankara both agree that "the creation of safe zones must lead to further conciliation and strengthening of the ceasefire regime" in war-torn Syria, Putin said.

The Russian president pointed out that regardless of safe zones, the fight will continue against terrorist organizations in Syria such as Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), Al-Nusra Front and other groups seen as terrorist by the United Nations.

The question of ceasefire monitoring in possible de-escalation zones is "an issue for separate talks," Putin added, saying that international military officials are in contact on the subject.

"In terms of air force flights, aviation will also not be deployed in de-escalation zones, on condition of no military activity there," the Russian president told journalists in Sochi.

The Turkish leader said that while he and the Russian president had discussed the issue of safe zones in Syria during their Sochi negotiations, it is the Astana peace talks participants who will work on the question. "I hope that a de-escalation zone will be implemented," Erdogan said.

The topic of de-escalation zones is especially related to the province of Idlib, where "many people from Aleppo have found refuge," the Turkish president pointed out.

READ MORE: Some trade restrictions between Russia and Turkey to remain for now – Putin

Having reiterated calls to stop the bloodshed of innocent people in Syria, the Turkish president said that both Moscow and Ankara back punishment for those behind an alleged chemical attack in the town of Khan Shaykhun in Syria's Idlib province.

"Such a barbaric attack must not be left unpunished," Erdogan said.

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Iraq or Syria? Trump recalls dessert perfectly, forgets who he bombed & internet erupts

US President Donald Trump revealed he informed Chinese Premier Xi Jinping about the US air strike on a Syrian military base as the pair ate "the most beautiful" chocolate cake. He then mixed up Syria and Iraq – and the internet had a meltdown.

Trump was speaking with Fox Business about the bizarre exchange with Chinese leader during a summit at his Mar-a-Lago estate.

We had finished dinner, we’re now having dessert,” Trump began. “And we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen and President Xi was enjoying it.

READ MORE: Trump says he told Xi how he bombed Syria over ‘most beautiful piece of cake’

We’ve just fired 59 missiles, all of which hit by the way, unbelievable, from hundreds of miles away, it’s brilliant, it’s genius, what we have in terms of technology no-one can come close to competing,” he continued.

So I said, we’ve just launched 59 missiles, heading to Iraq,” said the President, seemingly oblivious to his mistake. http://gph.is/1TUMIPk

what animated GIF

Heading to Syria,” host Maria Bartiromo interjected. “Yes,” Trump replied, “heading toward Syria.”

Naturally, Twitter was set alight by the gaffe.

@ChelseaClinton Disturbing that Trump remembers what he ate (chocolate cake) - but not where he sent missiles (Syria, not Iraq as he says until corrected) https://twitter.com/kylegriffin1/status...

@RegBarclay2017 Trump: President Xi, I just want you to know I just fired 59 cruise missiles at [Iraq] Syria.

@BraddJaffy Trump: Over dessert “I said we’ve just launched 59 missiles heading to Iraq”

@LawyerRogelio Trump he can remember that they were eating a beautiful chocolate cake but can't remember that the missiles were sent to Syria and NOT Iraq. pic.twitter.com/U00hvhPhij

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Idlib ‘chemical attack’ was false flag to set Assad up, more may come – Putin

Russia has information of a potential incident similar to the alleged chemical attack in Idlib province, possibly targeting a Damascus suburb, President Vladimir Putin said. The goal is to discredit the government of Syrian President Assad, he added.

“We have reports from multiple sources that false flags like this one – and I cannot call it otherwise – are being prepared in other parts of Syria, including the southern suburbs of Damascus. They plan to plant some chemical there and accuse the Syrian government of an attack,” he said at a joint press conference with Italian President Sergio Mattarella in Moscow.

Damascus denied the allegations, noting that the targeted area may have been hosting chemical weapons stockpiles belonging to Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) or Al-Nusra Front jihadists.

The incident has not been properly investigated as yet, but the US fired dozens of cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase in a demonstration of force over what it labeled a chemical attack by Damascus.

“President Mattarella and I discussed it, and I told him that this reminds me strongly of the events in 2003, when the US representatives demonstrated at the UN Security Council session the presumed chemical weapons found in Iraq. The military campaign was subsequently launched in Iraq and it ended with the devastation of the country, the growth of the terrorist threat and the appearance of Islamic State [IS, formerly ISIS] on the world stage,” he added.

It was the first time the US had targeted Syrian troops deliberately. The White House says it will repeat military action in response to any possible new chemical weapon attacks.

“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,” spokesman Sean Spicer said Monday.

Putin reiterated the call to properly investigate what happened in Khan Sheikhoun, saying that the alleged use of chemical weapons demands one.

“We are planning to address the corresponding UN structure in The Hague and call on the international community to thoroughly investigate all those reports and take appropriate action based on the results of such a probe,” he said.

A separate report of a potential false flag operation in Syria came from the Russian General Staff, which said militants were transporting toxic agents into several parts of Syria, including Eastern Ghouta, the site of the 2013 chemical weapons incident.

“These actions are aimed at creating a new pretext for accusing the government of Syria of more chemical weapons attacks and provoking more strikes by the US,” said Colonel General Sergey Rudskoy, the head of Operations.

cal weapons found in Iraq. The military campaign was subsequently launched in Iraq and it ended with the devastation of the country, the growth of the terrorist threat and the appearance of Islamic State [IS, formerly ISIS] on the world stage,” he added.

 

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US completely unwilling to cooperate on Syria & consider other interests – Kremlin

Actions of the US in Syria demonstrate a “complete unwillingness” to cooperate and take into account “interests and concerns” of the other actors in the region, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday.

“The US side thus has demonstrated a complete unwillingness to somehow cooperate on Syria and take into account each others' interests and concerns,” Peskov said, while commenting on the suspension of the Memorandum on Air Safety in the aftermath of the US missile strike on Syrian military airfield overnight on Thursday.

 
FILE PHOTO © Carlos M. Vazquez

The memorandum has lost its merit after the incident, Peskov said.

While the technical means to exchange military data with the US remained, there would be no further info swap, he added.

The Memorandum of Understanding on Flight Safety was signed in October 2015, after Russia came to Syria to fight international terrorism at the invitation of the country’s government. It was designed to prevent possible incidents between the Russian and US Air Forces operating independently in the region.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is scheduled to visit Moscow on April 11-12, although President Vladimir Putin does not have a meeting planned with him “so far,” according to Peskov. The only confirmed official contact with the Russian leadership on Tillerson’s agenda is with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

“So far there is no meeting with Tillerson on the president’s schedule,” Peskov told reporters in a phone call. “We never announce such meetings, whether they will take place or not – we won’t announce it.”

The Kremlin spokesman assured reporters though that if there is such a plan, media would be “properly notified.”

While Tillerson’s visit is expected to take place as planned, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson cancelled his own trip to Russia, citing the need to “talk with G7 counterparts” over “developments in Syria.” The Russian Foreign Ministry called the explanation for the last-minute cancellation “absurd.”

Washington has been sending mixed messages over the past few days following the missile strike. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the US envoy to the UN, Nikki Hayley, have lately expressed somewhat contradictory views on Syria. While both of them named the fight against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) a “top priority,” Tillerson said that the future of Syria and President Bashar Assad should be decided by the country’s people. Hayley, however, said that ousting Assad is still among the top priorities for Washington.

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US missile strike in Syria: What we know so far about target, victims & reactions

The US launched a missile strike on a Syrian airbase, killing at least six people, including civilians, and wounding several others. Reactions to the operation continue to roll in, with Russia condemning it while EU countries and others express support.

US President Donald Trump ordered the military strike on an airfield in Shayrat, near Homs, which resulted in a Friday pre-dawn strike in which 59 Tomahawk missiles were deployed.

Six MiG-23 fighter jets were destroyed in the operation, along with a material storage depot, a training facility, a canteen and a radar station, according to Russia's Ministry of Defense (MoD).

READ MORE: 1st footage of destruction at US-hit Shayrat airbase in Syria (VIDEO)

However, the airfield's runway remained intact, according to the MoD, which described the operation's efficiency as “quite poor.”

Syrian officials have so far confirmed that six people were killed and several others wounded in the operation.

However, the governor of Homs told RT that at least five people had been killed, three of whom were Syrian soldiers. He also stated that at least seven people had been wounded.

Meanwhile, Syria's SANA news agency has reported nine civilian deaths, including four children. 

Global reaction 

The office of Syrian President Bashar Assad called the US strike “reckless”,“irresponsible” and “shortsighted,” claiming the motives the strike weren't based on true facts.

 

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) conducts strike operations against Syria on April 7, 2017. © Ford Williams / Courtesy U.S. Navy / Handout via REUTERS

The Syrian Army called the strike “blatant aggression,” stating that it makes the US a partner of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) and other terrorist organizations.

Homs Governor Talal Barazi told Syrian state television that Syria's leadership and policy will not change as a result of the missile attack, pledging that the targeted airfield will be rebuilt and continue to play a role in fighting terrorists.

Russia also condemned the strike, saying it is suspending an agreement with the US to prevent incidents and ensure flight safety during military operations in Syria. Under the agreement, the two sides had exchanged information about planned flights in the area.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that strike reminds him of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was launched without approval from the UN Security Council. He went on to state that Washington has not presented any evidence to back its allegation that Damascus was behind the chemical attack.

Iran, a key ally of Assad, called the strikes “dangerous” and “destructive,” saying they violate international law.

Meanwhile, European countries have expressed support for the assault, including France, Germany, the UK and Italy.

@DefenceHQ Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon has welcomed US strikes on a Syrian airfield last night, saying they were 'limited and appropriate'.

French President Francois Hollande said Assad bears full responsibility for the strike, and said Russia should take it as a “warning” to push for a political solution to the Syrian conflict.

President of the European Council Donald Tusk says the strike is a needed action against “barbaric” chemical attacks, adding that the EU will work with the US to end the Syrian conflict.

@eucopresident US strikes show needed resolve against barbaric chemical attacks. EU will work with the US to end brutality in Syria.

Meanwhile, Turkey has also voiced support for the operation, with Ankara accusing Damascus of “humanitarian crimes.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the operation "positive" and a "concrete step taken against the war crimes of the Assad regime," but said it isn't enough on its own. He added that "serious steps" are needed for the protection of innocent Syrians, Reuters reported.

The prime minister of Israel, a staunch ally of the US, said Trump has sent a message that chemical weapons will not be tolerated. Benjamin Netanyahu went on to say that he hopes the message will extend not only to Damascus, but to other countries, including Iran and North Korea.

Saudi Arabia called the strike a “courageous decision” by Trump, expressing its full support, SPA news agency reported, citing a statement from Riyadh. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain also expressed support for the strike.

Japan has also voiced support for the operation.

China, which has historically sided with Russia at the UN in opposing condemnation of Assad's government, said it had “noted” the latest developments, but did not mention the missile attack specifically. It went on to state that the most urgent task to was to prevent the situation from deteriorating.

Further steps 

Following the strike, Moscow called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he regards the strike as an “aggression against a sovereign nation,” according to his spokesman Dmitry Peskov. He also said Putin believes the strike was carried out “in violation of international law” and “under an invented pretext.”

Rand Paul  © Eric Thayer

Moscow also vowed to take “a number of measures” to strengthen and improve Syria's air defense system in order to protect “vital parts of Syrian infrastructure,” according to Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov.

The missile strike, which Trump said was in America's national interest in order to prevent the use of chemical weapons, came after a chemical attack took place in Idlib, Syria, earlier this week. The US operation took place before any investigations were concluded.

Up to 86 people, including 26 children, are alleged to have been killed in the chemical attack, with images showing civilians choking and fainting, and some foaming at the mouths.

Washington has accused the Syrian government of being behind the “barbaric” attack.

However, Russia's Ministry of Defense has confirmed that the chemical release was the result of the Syrian Army destroying a rebel warehouse where chemical weapons were being produced and stockpiled before being shipped to Iraq. The ministry called the information “fully objective and verified.”

The Syrian Army also completely denied deploying chemical or toxic material, stating that it “has not used nor will use” such materials “in any place or time, neither in the past or in the future.”

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Syria denies & condemns use of chemical weapons – foreign minister

Syria’s foreign minister has dismissed allegations that the Syrian Army had deployed chemical weapons in the city of Idlib, saying the military will never use such weapons against its own people or even terrorists.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem denied claims that the military used chemical weapons in the western city of Idlib. Speaking at a news conference on Thursday, Muallem said an airstrike by Syrian military had targeted an arms depot where chemical weapons stockpiles were stored by Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) and Al-Nusra Front militants.

He said it’s impossible that the army – which has been making significant gains in almost all theaters of the Syrian war – would use banned chemical weapons against its “own people” and even terrorists.

 
Foreign Ministers and officials pose for a group photo as they take part in an international conference on the future of Syria and the region, in Brussels, Belgium, April 5, 2017. © Yves Herman

Asked if Damascus would allow a fact-finding mission into the Idlib incident, Muallem said past experience of similar investigations was “not encouraging.” He also said that he could not predict “the reality of US intentions” in Syria.

Muallem added that such a mission must not be politicized and must start its operations “from Damascus, not Turkey,” apparently referring to the latest statements by Ankara condemning the incident, as well as the fact that some victims were taken to Turkey for autopsy.

'Monstrous crime'

Meanwhile, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for the Russian president, said the Kremlin believes the Syrian military will do its utmost to prevent chemical agents from falling into the hands of terrorists.

“This was indeed a dangerous and monstrous crime, but in our opinion, it would be wrong to point fingers,” Peskov told reporters on Thursday. The Kremlin spokesman said Moscow does not agree with assessments provided by certain Western countries.

“Immediately after the tragedy no one had access to this area, so no one could have hard verifiable data. Consequently, any information which the US side or our colleagues from other countries might have had access to, could not be based on objective facts,” Peskov told reporters.

Though Peskov rejected “hasty assessments” of the alleged use of chemical weapons, he emphasized that there are always disagreements between Moscow and Washington, but mutual discords over the Idlib incident are unlikely to affect “the spirit of our cooperation.”

READ MORE: Rebels ‘only people who benefited’ from Idlib chemical weapons attack – analyst

Earlier in the day, the Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed as “unsubstantiated” statements by US Vice-President Mike Pence that Moscow and Damascus had failed to fulfill their obligations under a landmark 2013 deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons arsenals.

“I wouldn’t use profane language, especially when it comes to the second-most powerful man in the US administration, but I do believe that this is ignorance rather than irresponsibility,” Mikhail Ulyanov, head of the ministry’s Arms Control Department, said.

“The new administration has only recently begun reviewing its policy. Once that’s done, American officials’ statements, I hope, will become more accurate. There is no reason to say the US-Russia agreements [on eliminations Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles] did not work,” Ulyanov stated.

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