U.S. Takes Sharper Tone on Russia’s Role in Syria



President Trump met with Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, in the Oval Office on Wednesday. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Trump and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson sought on Wednesday to isolate President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for backing the Syrian government in the wake of its lethal chemical weapons attack on civilians, and worked to build international pressure on Moscow to change course.

In Washington, Moscow and New York, the Trump administration publicly chastised Mr. Putin but privately worked to hash out increasingly bitter differences with him. At the same time, Mr. Trump embraced NATO — a military alliance he had previously derided as obsolete — as an effective and vital force for peace and security in a region where Russia has been an aggressive actor.

During his presidential campaign, and in his early days in office, Mr. Trump’s approach to foreign policy included speaking warmly of Mr. Putin and the prospects of a United States alliance with Russia. He had also questioned the usefulness of NATO, and the concept of an alliance for common defense to counterbalance Moscow’s belligerence.

In an interview that aired on Wednesday, Mr. Trump said that Mr. Putin was partly to blame for the conflict in Syria and denounced him for backing President Bashar al-Assad, whom he called an “animal.”

Later at the White House, Mr. Trump said that Russia had likely known in advance of the Syrian government’s plan to unleash a nerve agent against its own people, and asserted that the United States’ relations with Moscow were at an “all-time low.”

In Moscow, Mr. Tillerson came away from a two-hour meeting with Mr. Putin — the first such face-to-face session of the Trump administration — without reaching agreement on facts involving the chemical weapons assault in Syria or Russian interference in the American election. And sharply diverging from the meeting of the minds between the United States and Russia that Mr. Trump frequently aspired to when he was campaigning, there was no visible warming of the relationship.

“There is a low level of trust between our countries,” Mr. Tillerson told reporters at a joint news conference with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov. “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.”

The most immediate casualty of the clash was Russia’s decision last week to suspend a communication channel, set up in 2015, to share information about American and Russian air operations over Syria to avoid possible conflict. Mr. Lavrov said on Wednesday that “we’re willing to put it back into force” if Washington and Moscow can resolve their differences.

Further punctuating the Syria dispute, Russia on Wednesday vetoed a Western-backed resolution at the United Nations Security Council that condemned the chemical weapons attack. It was the eighth time in the six-year-old Syrian civil war that Russia, one of the five permanent Security Council members, had used its veto power to shield the government in Damascus. But in a possible sign of Russia’s isolation on the chemical weapons issue, China, the permanent member that usually votes with Russia on Syria resolutions, abstained.

The vote came the day after Mr. Trump spoke by phone to President Xi Jinping of China, whom he hosted last week at a summit at his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Palm Beach, Fla. White House officials said they credited the relationship between the two leaders that was forged during the visit, and the conversation Tuesday evening, with helping to influence China’s vote.

The day began with harsh words from Mr. Trump toward Mr. Putin, whom he had once praised effusively.

“I really think there’s going to be a lot of pressure on Russia to make sure that peace happens, because frankly, if Russia didn’t go in and back this animal, we wouldn’t have a problem right now,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with Fox Business Network, referring to Mr. Assad. “Putin is backing a person that’s truly an evil person, and I think it’s very bad for Russia. I think it’s very bad for mankind. It’s very bad for this world.”

Later, after a meeting at the White House with Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, Mr. Trump went out of his way to praise the military institution, which he called a “great alliance,” and to express disappointment with Russia.

Asked whether it was possible that Syrian forces could have launched the chemical attack without Russia’s knowledge, Mr. Trump said: “It’s certainly possible; I think it’s probably unlikely.”