WASHINGTON – Senior White House officials accused Russia on Tuesday of trying to deflect blame from Syrian President Bashar Assad for a deadly poison gas attack on civilians last week that the United States has laid firmly at the feet of the Syrian government.
The officials, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said Assad’s government carried out the April 4 chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun as part of an effort to put pressure on Syrian rebels who were making advances in the area.
Russia has defended the Syrian government, a staunch ally, against U.S. allegations it was behind the sarin nerve gas attack in Syria’s Idlib province, saying there is no evidence to underpin such an allegation. It has blamed Syrian rebels.
The officials said Russia has frequently spun out multiple, conflicting accounts in order to create confusion and sow doubt within the international community.
“Russia’s allegations fit with a pattern of deflecting blame from the (Syrian) regime and attempting to undermine the credibility of its opponents,” one of the White House officials said.
The United States launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield last Thursday to retaliate against the chemical weapons attack, which killed 87 people, many of them children.
U.S. intelligence indicates that the chemical agent was delivered by Syrian Su-22 aircraft that took off from the Shayrat airfield, a White House report given to reporters said.
The planes were in the vicinity of Khan Sheikhoun about 20 minutes before the attack began and vacated the area shortly afterward, the report said.
“Additionally, our information indicates personnel historically associated with Syria’s chemical weapons program were at Shayrat airfield in late March making preparations for an upcoming attack in northern Syria, and they were present at the airfield on the day of the attack,” the report said.
One of the White House officials said Assad used the attack as part of an “operational calculus” to slow rebel advances by attacking civilians.
The officials had no comment on whether Russia might have colluded with Syria on the attack. The U.S. intelligence community has no consensus on whether Russia knew about the attack in advance, the officials said.