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Tillerson to tell Russia: We hope for a Syria without Assad

Putin says further US strikes expected against Syria and claims chemical attack 'provocation' was being planned
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives at the Vnukovo II Government airport in Moscow on Tuesday (AFP)

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson carried a message from world powers to Moscow on Tuesday denouncing Russian support for Syria's Bashar al-Assad, as the Trump administration took on America's traditional mantle as leader of a unified West.

Tillerson flew on the administration's first cabinet mission to Russia after meeting foreign ministers from the Group of Seven advanced economies and Middle Eastern allies in Italy. They endorsed a joint call for Russia to abandon Assad.

The administration of President Donald Trump, which came to power in January calling for warmer ties with Russia, was thrust into confrontation with Moscow last week when a poison gas attack in northern Syria killed 87 people.

The US is investigating whether Russia was complicit in the alleged chemical weapons attack, but has not yet made a determination, a senior administration official said Tuesday.

"How is it possible that their forces were co-located with the Syrian forces that planned, prepared and carried out this chemical weapons attack at the same installation and did not have foreknowledge?" said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We do think it is a question worth asking the Russians." 

The White House also said on Tuesday that there is no evidence to support Russian claims that last week's attack in Syria was fabricated.

"The absolute mass of data we have in all the different vehicles we've gotten it ... it's just too massive for really any intelligence organization to fabricate in that short a period of time," the White House official said. 

Western countries blamed Assad for the gas attack, and Trump responded by firing cruise missiles at a Syrian air base. Russian President Vladimir Putin has stood firmly by the Syrian government.

Britain, France and the US on Tuesday presented a new UN draft resolution demanding an investigation into the suspected chemical attack in Syria after the Security Council failed last week to agree on a response.

The new measure would require "full cooperation with the investigation" of the apparent attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun, British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said on Twitter.

"It is clear to us the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end," Tillerson told reporters in Italy before departing for Moscow. "We hope that the Russian government concludes that they have aligned themselves with an unreliable partner in Bashar al-Assad."

He said Russia failed in its role as sponsor of a 2013 deal under which Assad promised to give up his chemical arsenal.

"These agreements stipulated Russia as the guarantor of a Syria free of chemical weapons," Tillerson said. "It is unclear whether Russia failed to take this obligation seriously and whether Russia has been incompetent. But this distinction doesn't much matter to the dead. We can't let this happen again."

'We have information that a similar provocation is being prepared ... in other parts of Syria including in the southern Damascus suburbs where they are planning to again plant some substance' 

- Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russia says the chemicals that killed civilians belonged to rebels, not to Assad's government, and has accused the United States of an illegal act of aggression against Syria on a phoney pretext. Putin said on Tuesday he believed Washington planned to launch more missile strikes, and that rebels were planning to stage chemical weapons attacks to provoke them.

"We have information that a similar provocation is being prepared ... in other parts of Syria including in the southern Damascus suburbs where they are planning to again plant some substance and accuse the Syrian authorities of using (chemical weapons)," Putin said, standing alongside Italian President Sergio Matarella who was in Moscow for talks.

He did not offer any proof for that assertion.

Trump on Tuesday signed the US instrument of ratification for Montenegro's accession to NATO, the White House said, a move likely to be seen as a provocation by Moscow, which has warned against NATO enlargement.

New barrel bomb attacks

On the ground in Syria, the Assad government dropped barrel bombs on rebel-held areas of Hama province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights - one day after the White House cautioned that the use of the weapon could lead to a military response from the US. 

White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Monday placed the use of barrel bombs by the Syrian president alongside chemical weapons, saying the US would consider military action were either to be used, before stepping back with a "clarification" of comments.

"When you watch babies and children being gassed, and suffer under barrel bombs, you are instantaneously moved to action," Spicer said. "I think this president’s made it very clear that if those actions were to continue, further action will definitely be considered by the US."

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The comments signalled increased potential for escalation in Syria and conflict with Russia. 

Barrel bomb attacks however are an almost daily occurrence - several areas of Idlib have been hit by the crude weapons in the aftermath of the chemical attack.

Hours later, Spicer tried to clarify his comments in an email.

"Nothing has changed in our posture," he said. "The president retains the option to act in Syria against the Assad regime whenever it is in the national interest, as was determined following that government's use of chemical weapons against its own citizens."

Turkey, while confirming the use of sarin gas in Syria, also said that the Syrian government still possessed chemical weapons capacity and urged for measures to prevent its potential usage.

"It has been identified that sarin gas was used," Turkish Health Minister Recep Akdag said on Tuesday, quoted by state-run news agency Anadolu, after analysis of blood and urine samples of the casualties from the attack in Idlib province who were brought to Turkey.

Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, told state-run broadcaster TRT Haber on Tuesday that a transition government was urgently needed in Syria and that risks of chemical weapons would continue as long as Assad remained in power.

Russian servicemen killed in Syria

On Tuesday, Russia's defence ministry said that two soldiers acting as military instructors to government troops in Syria had been killed by rebel forces.

"Russian professional servicemen who were in a unit of Syrian forces as instructors... came under a mortar attack from a group of rebel fighters," the defence ministry said in a statement quoted by Interfax news agency. "As a result of a mortar explosion, two Russian servicemen died."