Tillerson, U.S., Russia relations at low point following meeting with Putin

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MOSCOW-- US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday that relations with Moscow are at a low point after meetings in Russia that seemed to do little to bridge a deepening diplomatic divide over a chemical attack in Syria.

"Relations are at a low point, there is a low level of trust between our two countries," Tillerson said at a news conference with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Tillerson and Lavrov spoke to the press after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, in an extended display of US-Russian disagreements over the chemical attack that left 89 people dead.

They also spoke on the role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country's future, US actions in the Middle East and Russian involvement in the US election.

The news conference came after Lavrov issued a warning to Tillerson, Wednesday against any further US strikes on the Syrian regime.

Russia is Syria's most powerful ally.

The two top diplomats had sat down together earlier in the day to work through the fallout of last week's chemical attack in northwestern Syria, which plunged the old Cold War enemies to a new low.

Following the chemical attack, US President Donald Trump ordered the first airstrike against the Syrian regime in its six-year conflict. The Tomahawk missile made contact with the Shayrat airfield in Syria, from where the US says the aircraft took off to launch the attack.

The US claims the strike destroyed 20 percent of Syria's operational aircraft, a figure disputed by Russia's Defense Ministry.

The fallout over the chemical attack follows comments by the Trump administration and Russia that a reset in relations between the countries was possible after decades of hostility.

Putin said in an interview with state-run MIR television earlier Wednesday that relations with the US had deteriorated.

"The working level of confidence in Russian-American relations, especially at the military level, under the administration of Donald Trump has not improved, but rather worsened," said Putin.

An icy welcome

Lavrov gave Tillerson an icy welcome Wednesday, diving straight into Moscow's grievances with Washington in what would usually be warm opening remarks.

It was a hostile start to the long-awaited meeting, which began with the two men entering a conference room making very little eye contact.

The two stood in front of their respective flags beneath a grand chandelier and took their seats on opposite sides of a meters-long table, from which Lavrov delivered his welcome.

According to an official Russian interpreter. Putin said that Russia saw some very troubling actions regarding the attack on Syria and that it was fundamentally important not to let those actions happen again.

The deaths have been widely blamed on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, but Russia has denied the regime carried out the attack.

Lavrov also complained about the mixed messages coming out of Washington on the Trump administration's policy on Syria, with the US envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley, making it clear that Assad should have no future in Syria as Tillerson took a softer line.

"I will be frank that we had a lot of questions regarding a lot of very ambiguous as well as contradictory ideas on a whole plethora of bilateral and international agenda coming from Washington," Lavrov said.

He hit back at remarks Tillerson made a day earlier that Russia would have to decide whether it was with the US and the West in standing up against Assad, or against them, describing the comments as wrong choices.

Tillerson took a more diplomatic tone in his opening remarks, saying that he hoped to clarify areas of common objectives, areas of common interests, even when our tactical approaches may be different. And to further clarify areas of sharp difference, so we can better understand why these differences exist and what the prospects for narrowing those differences may be.

Russia's position

Washington has said that Russia and Syria are trying to confuse the world about who is responsible for using chemical weapons against the Syrian people in this and earlier attacks.

Russia claims the Syrian regime is being unfairly blamed for the chemical attack, and on Wednesday Putin said that the attack was "simply staging" and a provocation, in his interview with MIR.

Moscow earlier claimed that the deaths had been caused when a Syrian regime airstrike hit a chemical weapons stockpile held by terrorist groups. Syria gave a murky account of what happened, denying its planes were in the air at the time of the dawn attack. Syria claims that they carried out their  first strike five hours later when they hit the alleged chemical weapons cache.

What is the US, Syria policy?

The US position on Syria is still woefully unclear, as Trump has made no comprehensive statement on Syria since last week's missile attack. He has made some comments to Fox News on Syria, saying that he did not plan for the US to be drawn fully into the Syrian war.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer has said that the Trump administration would respond if the Assad regime used barrel bombs against his own people, something that has been a regular occurrence in the six-year civil war.

Aides later clarified Spicer's comments by adding that the barrel bombs did not directly affect a change in administration policy.

Tillerson said he hoped the Syrian people would choose to oust Assad and reiterated that defeating ISIS was the US first priority in Syria.

Adding to more confusion, US Defense Secretary James Mattis has said that while defeating ISIS was the first priority, further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would not be tolerated and could warrant additional military action.