Russian advisors were deployed at a Syrian air base when a poison gas-laden warplane took off, a White House official said Tuesday, raising questions about whether the Russians knew in advance about last Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack in northern Syria.
The attack left dozens of Syrian villagers dead and spurred President Trump to launch a retaliatory missile strike.
U.S. intelligence officials still do not agree on whether the Kremlin knew about the gas attack beforehand, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
“There is not a consensus on our side” about any Russian foreknowledge of the attack using the banned nerve agent sarin, the official said.
But the presence of Russian personnel at the Shayrat air base prompted U.S. analysts to consider the possibility that Moscow may have known about the hidden stores of sarin beforehand and that they were being prepared for use in an attack.
On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters in Moscow that accusations leveled against Syria’s government were a “provocation” and that the gas attack should be investigated by the United Nations.
The White House wants Russia, Syria’s main patron, to “stop the disinformation campaign” and work to prevent Syrian forces from launching additional chemical attacks, a second White House official said.
Russia has launched a “very clear campaign to obscure the nature of the attacks,” the official said. Fighters of Islamic State and other terrorist or rebel groups in Syria do not possess sarin, U.S. intelligence officials have asserted.
“This is not a terrorist housing of sarin, or a terrorist use of sarin,” the official said.
U.S intelligence officials have assessed that opposition forces were close to taking a strategic airfield near the west-central Syrian city of Hama and had come within striking range of neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, gains that could have been a factor in the Syrian decision to launch the gas attack.
“There was a calculus that the regime and perhaps their Russian advisors” made when using chemical weapons, a White House official said, noting that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces were “spread quite thin.”