At the White House Sunday morning, President Trump profusely thanked Russia for its alleged involvement in the killing of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Trump said: "[The Russians] were very cooperative, they really were good... Russia treated us great. They opened up, we had to fly over certain Russia areas, Russia-held areas. Russia was great."
Russia didn’t seem to see it the same way.
The Russian Defense Ministry’s spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov, refuted President Trump’s statement, stating in part: “The Russian Defense Ministry has no reliable information about U.S. servicemen conducting an operation for ‘yet another’ elimination of the former Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the Turkish-controlled part of the Idlib de-escalation zone.”
The Russian Defense Ministry also disputed President Trump’s claim that Russia provided access to U.S. air units entering the airspace over the Idlib de-escalation zone during that mission in Syria. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to provide a comment about President Trump’s announcement, directing everyone to General Konashenkov’s statement.
Kremlin-controlled Russian state media shot down President Trump’s announcement, with headlines that read: “The Russian Defense Ministry does not believe in al-Baghdadi’s liquidation.” Major General Igor Konashenkov scoffed at the changing details of the operation, with Trump adding alleged participants and various countries that supposedly took part in the raid, “each with completely contradictory details,” which Konashenkov said “raises reasonable questions and doubts about [the operation’s] veracity, not to mention success.”
Konashenkov said that the entire territory of the Idlib de-escalation zone that is not under control of the Assad government is in the grip of the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda—the terrorist group Jebhat al-Nusra—which he argued “always uncompromisingly exterminated any ISIS representatives on the spot as the main rivals for power in Syria.” Therefore, Konashenkov does not believe President Trump’s claims that the former ISIS leader could be quietly hiding in the territory controlled by Syrian Al-Qaeda, demanding “at least some direct evidence from the United States or other participants in the operation."
Konashenkov skeptically pointed out that al-Baghdadi was already supposedly “eliminated” multiple times, with such claims being later disproven. In fact, Russia itself, as well as the Assad regime, have falsely claimed to have killed the ISIS leader multiple times.
The Russian Defense Ministry’s spokesman further emphasized that even if al-Baghdadi were to be eliminated, that wouldn’t change facts on the ground in Syria or make any difference with respect to the multiple escaped ISIS fighters.
In his Sunday show, the infamous state TV propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov took another jab at the United States, exclaiming that “except for Russia and Syria, no one has ever seriously fought against ISIS.” Kiselyov made fun of Trump’s claim that America is “protecting the oil fields in Syria,” stating that “Americans are in Syria illegally. Sooner or later, they will have to get out of there completely. Let them guard their oil—in another hemisphere.”
On Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made the similar point to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a call reportedly initiated by the American side. Lavrov decried President Trump’s stated goal of “protecting the local oilfields from ISIS” as a violation of international law and told Pompeo that all natural resources in Syria belong to Damascus. Lavrov and Pompeo also reportedly discussed other unspecified issues with respect to relations between Moscow and Washington.
Russia is not only skeptical of President Trump’s claims with respect to the killing of al-Baghdadi, but openly refers to his announcement as mere “propaganda,” designed to appease his electorate and help him get re-elected. Denis Davydov, Russian state TV correspondent in the United States, told Rossiya-24 that “Trump has elections coming up in a year and this announcement of al-Baghdadi’s liquidation will add some points for the Commander-in-Chief.”