04/11/2017 09:33 EDT

Chrystia Freeland: Russia Can Get On 'Right Side Of History' And Push Assad Regime Out

"There's an opportunity to bring renewed energy to the political process."

WASHINGTON — Western countries are presenting a high-stakes ultimatum to Russia: Allow regime-change in Syria and cut loose Bashar Assad, or remain a pariah moored on the fringes of the international community.

Different U.S. allies articulated different versions of that warning Tuesday, including Canada. During a G7 meeting in Italy, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland urged Russia to seize the moment as a chance to break with Assad.

The twin events of a horrific chemical attack on Syrian civilians, combined with U.S. airstrikes, had created new momentum in pursuing a long-term political solution to the Syrian civil war, Freeland said.

"Russia needs to decide whether it wants to double down on its support of a murderous regime that is committing war crimes, or whether right now it wants to say, 'You know what? We do not want to be associated with this, this is not where we want our country to be,"' she told a conference call.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says Assad's gruesome chemical attack against his own people and the U.S. missile strike that followed have created conditions conducive to a political solution to the tensions in Syria. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)

"I really do hope Russia will take this opportunity to be on the right side of history."

The same point was delivered with a twist of mockery from the White House. A spokesman for President Donald Trump insinuated that Russia's behaviour of recent years had left it confined to an international alliance of losers.

"Russia is isolated. They have aligned themselves with North Korea, Syria, Iran. That's not exactly a group of countries you're looking to hang out with. With the exception of Russia, they are all failed states," Sean Spicer said.

"Russia is on an island.... This is not a team you want to be on."

The violence in Syria has brought to a boiling point years of escalating tension with Moscow — that tension surged with the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, followed by painful economic sanctions, and then divergent views on Syria.

"I really do hope Russia will take this opportunity to be on the right side of history."

It certainly didn't sound like Russia was tempted by the invitation of a strategic reset Tuesday. In public comments, President Vladimir Putin exhibited no inclination toward a pro-western, anti-Assad pivot.

In fact, Putin appeared to accuse the West of making up some chemical attacks in Syria. He even likened it to the false evidence presented by the U.S. that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Putin called them false flags.

"We have reports from multiple sources that false flags (are happening)... They plan to plant some chemical there and accuse the Syrian government of an attack," he said, according to Russia Today.

He made those remarks during a visit from Italy's president, and before another high-profile visit. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson landed in Moscow on Tuesday after the G7 meetings.

Tillerson previewed the message he would take to Moscow. It sounded similar to the one from Freeland, and from the White House. Only in this case, it's coming from Tillerson, a former oil executive with good relationships in Moscow.

"Russia has really aligned itself with the Assad regime, the Iranians, and Hezbollah. Is that a long-term alliance that serves Russia's interest, or would Russia prefer to realign with the United States, with other Western countries and Middle East countries who are seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis?"

The G7 ministers blamed Assad's military for a deadly chemical attack last week.

However, there were some differences among the group. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the G7 was considering new sanctions on Russian military figures to press Moscow to end military support for Assad.

Others wanted a more conciliatory approach. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said Russia, and Assad ally Iran, must be involved in any peace process to end Syria's six-year civil war.

Russia's 'task'

There also were some conciliatory noises from Moscow.

A prominent Russian lawmaker said his country had no intention of getting pulled into combat with United States. That came a day after a pro-Assad military coalition said it might fire back if the U.S. strikes again.

But Viktor Ozerov, the head of the defence and security committee in Russia's upper house, said Russia's enemy in Syria will continue to be terrorist rebels.

"Russia does not intend to get involved in an armed standoff with the United States there," he was quoted saying by RIA Novosti. "Our task there is to support the Syrian military forces in their fight against terrorists, this is the task we have a mandate for."

With files from The Associated Press

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