The stand-off between Russia and the United States over the war in Syria deepened ahead of crunch talks in Moscow this week, with the US secretary of state joining senior UK ministers in blaming Vladimir Putin for a deadly chemical attack on civilians.
Rex Tillerson accused Russia of “providing cover” for war crimes committed by Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime following the deaths of 87 people, including women and children, in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.
Unleashing the horror of chemical weapons on women, children and the defenceless is not only utterly deplorable, but it is the mark of a cowardPriti Patel
Mr Tillerson stepped back from suggestions the US could take further military action after it launched a cruise missile attack on a Syrian government air base.
But in a sign that it may be too late to stop a runaway diplomatic crisis, a planned meeting with Mr Putin was taken off the agenda for when Mr Tillerson flies to Moscow on Wednesday.
He will go ahead with his visit in order to deliver a “clear and co-ordinated” message to the Kremlin, with the secretary of state expected to present Russia with proof of Assad’s culpability for Tuesday’s Sarin gas attack. Russia could face further sanctions over its alleged complicity, with western leaders accusing Mr Putin’s government of failing in its role as the guarantor of an earlier agreement to rid Syria of weapons of mass destruction.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was branded a US “poodle” after abandoning a visit to the Russian capital at the last minute, in order to clear the way for Mr Tillerson’s Moscow trip.
The Foreign Office insisted Mr Johnson was focussing on canvassing G7 leaders in order to secure a tough statement on Russian involvement in Syria at a two-day meeting of the group that starts today in the Italian town of Lucca.
Russia, Iran and its allies said the US had crossed a “red line” by firing a volley of 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat airbase in Syria, and warned they “will respond to any aggression” in the future.
Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon said Russia was responsible for “every civilian death” in the Syrian chemical weapons attack, claiming Mr Putin was to blame “by proxy” as the Syrian president’s “principal backer”.
Mr Tillerson echoed the comments, telling CBS the Russians “have played now for some time the role of providing cover for Bashar Assad’s behaviour”.
Russia’s failures to rid Syria of weapons stockpiles “has led to the killing of more children and innocents”, he said.
But asked about the possibility of further intervention, the secretary of state said Washington’s “first priority” in Syria is to defeat Islamic State (IS), also known as Daesh.
“Once the Isis threat has been reduced or eliminated, I think we can turn our attention directly to stabilising the situation in Syria,” he said.
Those comments were echoed by US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser HR McMaster, who said Russian support for the Syrian government was “part of the problem”.
“I think what we should do is ask Russia, ‘How could it be if you have advisers at that airfield, that you didn’t know?”’ Mr McMaster said.
The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, told CNN: “Either they knew that there were chemical weapons and they knew there was going to be chemical weapon use, and they just hid it from the international community, or they are being played for fools by Assad.”
Writing in a Sunday newspaper, Sir Michael said Russia must be part of the solution to ending the “needless suffering” of Syrian civilians.
“But Assad’s principal backer is Russia. By proxy Russia is responsible for every civilian death last week,” he said. International Development Secretary Priti Patel said Britain will provide medical teams on the ground in Syria following the chemical attack.
But she played down suggestions that the UK government could ask parliament for a mandate to join future US strikes against the al-Assad regime, after a previous vote that rejected military action.
“Parliament spoke in 2013,” Ms Patel said.
An extra £7 million of funding will be used on healthcare and medicine across the war-torn country to allow medics to prepare for future emergencies.
Ms Patel said: “This was a brutal and indiscriminate attack. Unleashing the horror of chemical weapons on women, children and the defenceless is not only utterly deplorable, but it is the mark of a craven coward.
“Those responsible must be held to account.
“And the victims must get the help they so desperately need, that is why we are providing further medical support not only for those subjected to the horrors of chemical attack, but for those countless victims of the equally deadly bombs, bullets and diseases that are devastating lives across Syria.”
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said the US should not have launched its missile strikes.
He told Sky News: “There’s no way we will get rid of Assad unless there’s Russian agreement and I think the potential there has been destroyed as a result of this bombing.”
Mr Johnson’s visit to Moscow was cancelled following a late night phone call with Mr Tillerson, prompting fierce criticism of the Foreign Secretary.
Former First Minister Alex Salmond claimed the move made Mr Johnson look like “some sort of mini-me” who cannot be trusted to hold his own talks with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.
The SNP’s foreign affairs spokesman told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “Boris Johnson just looks daft. What is the argument for not going ahead with a visit? Rex Tillerson is going on Wednesday so it can’t be that we have moved to a Cold War position of no talking whatsoever.
“The idea the Foreign Secretary can’t be trusted because he might pursue his own line or have an independent thought or crossover what the Americans are going to say just makes him look like some sort of mini-me to the United States of America.”