Russian efforts to deflect from Syrian President Bashar Assad's use of chemical weapons have taken a turn for the "absurd," according to the State Department.
The jibe arose from Russia's interpretation of a State Department travel warning for Syria that noted terrorists in the country have used chemical weapons in the ongoing civil war. The Russian Defense Ministry cited that missive as a vindication of their suggestion that a chemical weapons attack in April was staged by terrorists, perhaps in coordination with the United States, to justify a Western assault on the Assad regime.
"They are absurd," Edgar Vasquez, a State Department spokesman, told the Washington Examiner in an emailed statement. "Their comments are a deliberate attempt to yet again deflect from the documented fact that the Assad regime has committed multiple chemical weapons attacks against its own people."
The Russian military insisted that the travel warning amounted to an unprecedented public statement by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's team. "This is the first official recognition by the State Department not only of the presence, but the very use of chemical weapons by [Jabhat al-Nusrah] terrorists to carry out terrorist attacks, which we repeatedly warned about," said Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, per state-run media.
The travel warning doesn't explicitly say that. "Terrorist and other violent extremist groups including ISIS and al-Qa'ida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (dominated by al-Qa'ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah, a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization), operate in Syria," the State Department bulletin notes. "Tactics of ISIS, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, and other violent extremist groups include the use of suicide bombers, kidnapping, small and heavy arms, improvised explosive devices, and chemical weapons."
Vasquez suggested that statement should be understood as a reiteration of the State Department's belief that the Islamic State has used chemical weapons, rather than an announcement of a new policy.
"It's a travel warning with the primary purpose of informing American citizens about the dangers of traveling to Syria – basically to tell them don't go there," the State Department spokesman said. "Moreover, the Russians are clearly cherry-picking language to suit their false narrative that they have been peddling for years about the use of chemical weapons in Syria and those responsible."
The back-and-forth coincides with the liberation of Raqqa by a U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, which had made Raqqa the effective capital of their self-declared caliphate. With the Syrian civil war still underway, Russian and Iranian forces are seeking to control crucial territory that would allow the Assad regime to dominate any political settlement that ends the fighting.
"Russian and/or Syrian forces continue to conduct airstrikes in Idlib province, which have recently resulted in dozens of civilian casualties and the death of medical personnel," the travel warning noted. "Moreover, the Syrian government and its partners continue to prohibit the free flow of humanitarian aid into besieged areas, resulting in severe food shortages."