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Russia-US relations seeing new flashpoint

China Daily | Updated: 2018-04-11 09:26

Countries in UN Security Council showdown over attack in Syria

WASHINGTON - The alleged Syrian chemical attack is becoming a new flashpoint for relations between the United States and Russia that many already see as having hit rock-bottom.

The past two days have seen an exchange of fierce words between the two nuclear powers. US President Donald Trump, who had kept from lashing out at Russia and President Vladimir Putin over Ukraine and many other issues, attacked Putin several times in a move many US experts saw as "groundbreaking".

Calling Saturday's chemical attack in Syria "sick", Trump tweeted that "President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible" for backing the Syrian government, warning that there will be a looming "big price" for them to pay.

He also promised quick, forceful action in response to the suspected attack, appearing to suggest a potential military response.

Later on Monday, envoys of Washington and Moscow traded barbs at a United Nations Security Council special meeting over the incident. US Ambassador Nikki Haley said Russia has the "blood of Syrian children" on its hands, and Russian envoy Vassily Nebenzia said the attack was staged and that possible US military action could trigger "grave repercussions".

US-Russia relations have hit rock-bottom. Recently, Washington stepped up its pressure by expelling 60 Russian diplomats to join Britain's retaliation over the disputed spy poisoning case, and launching sanctions against Russian business leaders and officials in the two months over alleged Russian intervention in the US 2016 presidential elections. Russia denies the claims.

Such US moves have sparked fierce responses from Russia. Besides a counter diplomat expulsion, Russia vowed tough measures against US sanctions on Friday, and said "there remains only a desire of the United States to ensure by all means its global hegemony".

Trump's threat on Monday of a military option in response to the alleged attack further strained ties with Russia, endangering the "de-escalation zone" and hotlines the two sides have agreed to set up so as to avoid conflicts on the Syrian battleground.

Washington also discussed a response with London and Paris on Monday.

Experts said Trump's military threat, an apparent setback compared with his statements last week to take the US troops out of Syria very soon, could further complicate US-Russia ties.

Russia and Syria have been urging a withdrawal of US troops, whose presence they say is uninvited and is a violation of international law.

'Worrisome' signs

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had said he welcomes Trump's pledge of an early withdrawal from Syria, despite what he called "worrisome" signs that US troops were becoming "deeply entrenched" in areas east of the Euphrates River in fighting the Islamic State group.

Afshin Molavi, a senior research fellow from Johns Hopkins University in the US, said Trump's warning will not change the balance of power on the ground fundamentally, but create a confusing situation for Washington itself.

"If he (Trump) goes for something larger this time, for example, targeting Syria's air force, I think that could play a much more significant role in changing the balance of power on the ground," he said.

"But as long as Russia and Iran continue to be on the ground while President Trump is talking about pulling America's special forces out of Syria", it means "a confusing situation, just got a lot more confusing", he added.

"It's a very muddled policy," he said. "On the one hand, you declare that you want to remove the US troops from a battle zone. On the other hand, you are threatening military strikes."

Xinhua - Reuters - AP

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