President Donald Trump said Wednesday that Russia may have known beforehand of Syria's plan to launch a chemical weapons attack.
"I think it's certainly possible. I think it's unlikely, I'd like to think that they didn't know," Trump said, but "they certainly could have. They were there" at Syria's Shayrat airfield north of Damascus.
From that location, a Russian-made Sukhoi-22 took off April 4 to drop a nerve agent munition on the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun, according to the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence. The attack that killed at least 89 and injured hundreds led Trump to order the first U.S. retaliatory action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the six-year-old Syrian civil war.
On April 6, the U.S. Navy's Arleigh Burke-class destroyers Ross and Porter launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat airfield as a warning against any further chemical weapons attacks by the regime.
Russia and Syria denounced the U.S. attack and charged that the release of the nerve agent Sarin in Khan Sheikhoun may have been caused when an airstrike hit a rebel storage area for chemical agents.
White House officials said that Syria and Russia were colluding in a "coverup."
"Right now, we're not getting along with Russia at all," Trump said at a joint White House news conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. "It would be nice if we could. We're gonna see how that all works out."
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday that the attack on Shayrat was a "singular" action to deter chemical warfare and did not indicate any shift in U.S. policy on Syria, which is to focus on defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
However, U.S. military officials said that U.S. troops in Syria had temporarily adopted a more defensive posture to guard against a possible Russian response.
In a video briefing Wednesday from Baghdad to the Pentagon, Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, repeatedly declined comment on the so-called "deconfliction channel" that had been used by the U.S. and Russia to communicate on air operations over Syria to avoid conflict.
Russia announced it was suspending its participation in the deconfliction channel following the Shayrat attack, increasing the risk of a confrontation between U.S. and Russian pilots.
Discussing the deconfliction channel "was not a productive thing to do," Dorrian said, "and that's the reason that we are no longer doing readouts of what those discussions are, and we will not get back into that business."
"We have continued to deconflict as necessary with the Russians," Dorrian said, but he declined to say how that was being done with the deconfliction channel under suspension by the Russians.
In Moscow on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a joint news conference with visiting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be willing to re-open the deconfliction channel on condition that the U.S. avoid any attempt to topple the Assad regime.
"We are willing to put it back into force," Lavrov said, but only under U.S. assurances that its only mission in Syria is the defeat of ISIS.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.