In Moscow, Tillerson Defends Trump’s ‘Animal’ Comment: Assad ‘Brought [it] Upon Himself’

By Patrick Goodenough | April 13, 2017 | 12:18 AM EDT

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov address a press conference in Moscow on Wednesday, April 12, 2017. (Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry)

( – Blasting what he called “media hysteria” over a April 4 chemical weapons attack in Syria, Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov disagreed sharply with his U.S. counterpart Wednesday over the Assad regime’s responsibility for the deadly assault, and delivered a curt lecture about past Western efforts to dislodge dictators.

“The media hysteria which was unleashed as a result of this incident – we have to make sure that we are impartial now in investigating this whole business by sending international expert groups to the site,” Lavrov said alongside Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at a press briefing in Moscow, according to a State Department translation.

Tillerson gave no quarter when asked about President Trump’s use (in a Fox Business Network interview) of the word “animal” to describe Bashar al-Assad. Tillerson suggested the Syrian president deserves the epithet.

The U.S., he said, believes the facts are conclusive that last week’s chemical attack “was directed and executed by Syrian regime forces.”

“This is just the latest in a series of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, notwithstanding their use on more than 50 occasions of chlorine bombs, and cluster bombs, and other types of weapons that are intended to maim and kill in the most horrific ways,” Tillerson added. “So I think the characterization is one that President Assad has brought upon himself.”

At least 70 people, including children, died in Khan Sheikhun, Idlib province, in what the Trump administration charges was an attack involving the dropping from a Syrian Sukhoi Su-22 warplane of at least one munition carrying the lethal nerve agent, sarin.

The incident triggered a U.S. cruise missile strike against the Syrian airbase where the Pentagon says the chemical attack originated.

Immediately after Tillerson said Assad had brought Trump’s opinion of him upon himself, the moderator tried to move to the next questioner but Lavrov jumped in, saying he wanted to add “two words.”

Instead he added more than 500, charging that claims of regime use of chemical weapons were based on unreliable information provided from a distance, while on the other hand the Syrian government and army have provided Russia with “absolutely incontrovertible evidence about the use of chemical weapons” by rebel groups – based on information obtained from the ground, not from a distance.

Lavrov voiced doubts that chemical weapons could have been located at the site of the airbase targeted by the U.S. missile strike, pointing to television footage showing people at the site immediately afterward, with no indication of the presence of “poisonous substances.”

“We are absolutely 100 percent convinced that if our colleagues in the United Nations and [at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] in The Hague shirk from this investigation, then this will mean that they simply don’t want to establish the truth,” he concluded. “And we will insist on it.”

Before traveling to Moscow on his first visit as secretary of state, Tillerson said that Russia was either “complicit” in the use of chemical weapons by its ally in Damascus or “simply incompetent” – since Russia brokered a 2013 deal under which Assad was meant to have handed over all of his chemical weapons for destruction.

Asked at Wednesday’s briefing which of the two he now believed to be the case after his talks with Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin, Tillerson said only that the U.S. has “no firm information to indicate that there was any involvement by Russia” in the Khan Sheikhun attack.

“What we do know – and we have very firm and high confidence in our conclusion – is that the attack was planned and carried out by the regime forces at the direction of Bashar al-Assad,” he added.

Tillerson also repeated the U.S. view that “the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end.”

Lavrov said an examination of what has happened in the past was necessary in order to deal with today’s problems. He cited several examples where, he said, Western countries had been “absolutely obsessed” with toppling a dictator or totalitarian leader, including the cases of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in 1999, Iraq’s Saddam Hussain in 2003 and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

He then pointed to a somewhat different case, U.S. support for the independence of South Sudan in 2011 (which Lavrov suggested was President Obama’s solution to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s indictment by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur). A civil war broke out in the newly-independent country just two years later, and Lavrov noted that South Sudan was now itself targeted for U.N. sanctions.

“So this insistence on removing or ousting a dictator or totalitarian leader – we have already been through it,” Lavrov said. “We very well know, only too well, what happens when you do that. I don’t remember any case of a dictator being removed smoothly, without violence.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow