Retired U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering said Friday that Russians at the Syrian air base struck by U.S. missiles indicated that Moscow was "witting" in this week's chemical attack and that President Donald Trump now has greater leverage for a diplomatic end to that country's bloody civil war.
"The presence of Russians at the airfield would certainly indicate that they were witting," Pickering, 85, who has been ambassador to Russia and five other nations, told Brooke Baldwin on CNN. "What they did to make them complicit is the fine parsing of the effort.
"What's more significant is that traditionally when these attacks have taken place … the Russians try to put the blame on the opposition," he said. "This time, it doesn't seem to be holding up very well."
U.S. military officials said Friday that a drone belonging to either Moscow or Syria was seen over the site of Tuesday's chemical assault, raising questions of whether Russia participated in the attack.
President Trump ordered the launching of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from two Navy destroyers targeting the government-controlled Shayrat air base in central Syria.
U.S. officials said the Syrian military planes that dropped the chemicals had taken off from the site.
The strike targeted the base's airstrips, hangars, control tower and ammunition areas, officials said, and the U.S. notified the Russian military stationed there that the effort was forthcoming.
Russia condemned the move Friday as an act of "aggression."
Pickering told Baldwin that the strike has built leverage for the United States in dealing with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"They built leverage for a political settlement," he said. "I don't believe it's an indication that we're going to win this war — or that it is opening the path for the Russians and Assad to win this war.
"It's been clear for some time that a political workout has to be achieved.
"The interesting question for the United States is have they begun to think about that and how and in what way do they use the leverage," he continued, "or will we get into a question of tit-for-tat and neither side being able to use the leverage constructively that they've got to put it into the political hopper.
"This is an opportunity now to see whether in fact there is a workout that is possible," Pickering said. "Because neither side is going to win anything by a constant escalation of military activities without opening the diplomatic door.
"I think it's possible, but it's a long shot."
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