By Missy Ryan and ,

The Trump administration broadened its assault on Russia’s military involvement in Syria on Tuesday, offering new evidence that U.S. officials said showed that Moscow’s explanation for a deadly April 4 chemical attack was false.

The new details from a declassified U.S. assessment add to tensions with Russia just as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson makes his first visit to Moscow and presses the Kremlin to drop its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

[Tillerson brings tough line to Moscow over Russia’s backing for Syrian regime]

The release of new intelligence findings reflects a mounting determination by the Trump administration to counter Russia’s explanation for the mass deaths in a rebel-held Syrian town and to justify last week’s decision to launch missile strikes on the air base officials say was used to mount the attack.

Senior U.S. officials said that American signals and aerial intelligence, combined with local reporting and samples taken from victims of the incident, showed that a Russian-made, Syrian-piloted SU-22 aircraft dropped at least one munition carrying the nerve gas sarin on the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun.

At least 70 people died from exposure to sarin gas in the attack, including numerous children.

The officials said that nothing from an array of publicly available and intelligence material provided any credence to the alternate account put forward by Syria and Russia, which claimed that routine bombing inadvertently struck an opposition chemical weapons depot.

“We are very confident that terrorists or non-state actors did not commit this attack,” said one senior official who, like others, spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence findings.

Officials said the U.S. government had not yet reached a consensus on whether Russia, whose 2015 entry into the long Syrian conflict provided a lifeline for Assad, knew about the chemical attack ahead of time. But they suggested it was unlikely that Russian troops, stationed at the airbase singled out last week, would have been kept in the dark.

[Where are Russian and U.S. troops in Syria?]

“We do think it is a question worth asking the Russians, about how is it possible that their forces were co-located with the forces that planned, prepared and carried out the chemical weapons attack at the same installation and did not have foreknowledge?” another official said.

The officials blamed the government of President Vladi­mir Putin for a “clear pattern of deflecting blame” for its actions and those of Assad’s government, and for trying to use disinformation to hide Syrian government’s role in what occurred.

“I think it’s clear that the Russians are trying to cover up what happened there,” the first official said.

The mounting public criticism of Russia takes place as Tillerson touches down in Moscow for talks with senior Russian officials, possibly including President Vladi­mir Putin.

Signaling a step back from President Trump’s earlier suggestions of warmer U.S.-Russia relations, Tillerson issued an ultimatum to Moscow ahead of his trip, asking it to choose between the West on one hand and its alliance with Assad and the Syrian leader’s other key backer, Iran, on the other.

The Russian government stepped up its response to events in Syria on Tuesday, as Putin raised questions about the capabilities of U.S. intelligence agencies and asserted that provocateurs were planning to plant chemical materials elsewhere in Syria and blame the Assad government.

For the first time since last week’s attacks, the White House described what it said was the Syrian regime’s motivation for turning to chemical weapons.

While senior officials declined to say whether they had clear evidence that Assad himself had ordered the attacks, they said that the Syrian military had used the weapons to prevent the loss of a key airfield that was threatened by recent rebel advance on the strategic city of Hama.

“They were losing in a particularly important area and that’s what drove them,” said one of the senior officials.

[American strikes against Syria prompt both praise and condemnation]

U.S. intelligence showed that the opposition rebel forces were able to penetrate within a couple of miles of Hama and the key Syrian air base. The base, in particular, has been critical for launching planes used to fend off rebel attacks throughout central Syria. “So that is an air base that the regime had to calculate that it could not lose,” said a third U.S. official.

The Assad regime is down to as few as 18,000 soldiers, according to some estimates. U.S. officials said the chemical weapons attack, launched against civilians in an area that has supported the rebels, were intended to help make up for those manpower deficiencies.

Even as the officials explained the regime’s strategy for using the weapons, they did not discount the possibility of Russian complicity. “We believe there was an operation calculus that the regime and perhaps its Russian advisers went through in terms of the decision making,” the official said.

He described the use of the weapons as falling within the natural “punch-counterpunch” battle for Hama and the Syrian regime airfield. But the main focus of the White House was not on the Syrian regime but on increasing pressure on the Russians to reduce their support for Assad and the Syrian government.

White House officials described their narrative of the attacks as “clear, concise and definitive.”

“This is an opportunity for the Russians to choose to stop the disinformation campaign and make the commitment to accept what happened and work forward to eliminate WMDs from Syria all together,” one of the White House officials said, referring to weapons of mass destruction.

Read more:

Expectations of a new U.S.-Russia relationship were tanking even before missile strike

Rattled by U.S. strike, Assad lashes out at ‘arrogant aggression’

How two weeks and one deadly chemical strike changed U.S. policy toward Syria

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