MOSCOW: US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson flew into Moscow on Tuesday to confront Russia about its support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad after a suspected chemical weapons massacre.
Tillerson is the first senior US official to visit Moscow since President Donald Trump took office promising to seek closer anti-terrorist cooperation with Russia, but as he arrived relations were already tense.
Last week, the US fired a volley of cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase in response to an alleged regime attack using a suspected nerve agent that killed at least 87 civilians in a rebel-held town, many of them children.
Russia, which along with Iran has deployed forces to help Assad win the six-year-old civil war, reacted with fury to the US strike and continues to cast doubt on the regime’s involvement in the chemical attack, to Washington’s disgust.
Tillerson did not cancel his visit, however, and he will hold talks with his counterpart Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday. It is not yet clear whether an expected meeting with President Vladimir Putin will go ahead.
At the talks, Tillerson will challenge Russia to distance itself from Assad and his Iranian backers and to work with Washington’s Western and Arab allies to find a political solution to the conflict with Syria under new leadership.
Evidence against Assad mounting
Speaking to reporters before he left the G7 foreign ministers’ meeting in Italy, Tillerson said: “Russia has really aligned itself with the Assad regime, the Iranians, and Hezbollah.
“Is that a long-term alliance that serves Russia’s interest?” he asked.
“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?”
Even as Tillerson flew to Russia, evidence against Assad was mounting. Turkey announced that blood and urine samples taken from the victims of the Khan Sheikhun attack confirmed that the banned sarin nerve agent was used.
But Russia remains unmoved by the international chorus of outrage, and the US envoy is likely to face a chilly reception whether or not he is allowed to meet Putin.
The Russian leader in televised comments not only repeated his defence of Assad but suggested the Syrian leader’s rebel opponents were preparing more faked attacks in order to encourage US intervention.
“We have information from various sources that such provocations — I cannot call them otherwise — are being prepared in other regions of Syria, including in the southern outskirts of Damascus, where they are again planning to throw some kind of substance and accuse Syrian official authorities of using it,” Putin said.
In Italy, Tillerson attempted to rally the world’s leading economies behind fresh sanctions against Assad’s regime but, despite much outrage over the Khan Sheikhun killings, he failed to win consensus.
He did go some way towards clarifying the US position on Syria, however, which had become muddled by apparently conflicting statements from senior officials in Trump’s administration about Assad’s fate.
Tillerson said the US goal of defeating the Islamic State extremist group in eastern Syria remains a priority, but that Washington hopes a UN-led peace process will allow the Syrian people to oust their own leader.
“To be clear, our military action was a direct response to the Assad regime’s barbarism,” Tillerson told the G7, insisting that the missile strikes were not the start of a military regime change effort.
As G7 ministers urged a new diplomatic push to end the conflict and create a lasting peace for a unified Syria, Tillerson said: “Our hope is Bashar al-Assad will not be part of that future.”
The ministers however failed to agree on whether fresh sanctions should be imposed on Damascus — or Russia itself.
“At the moment there is no consensus on new sanctions as an effective instrument,” Italy’s Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said, after his British counterpart Boris Johnson had raised the issue.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said the G7 ministers — who also held talks with their counterparts from Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE — wanted to “avoid a military escalation” in Syria.
“We want to bring Russia around to supporting the political process for a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict.”
On Monday, Johnson had described Assad as “toxic” and said it was “time for Vladimir Putin to face the truth about the tyrant he is propping up”. The British minister cancelled a planned visit of his own to Moscow this week.
Two more ministers are planning to make the trip, however: The Russian foreign ministry announced that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and Iran’s Mohammad Javad Zarif are due in Moscow later in the week.
Washington’s threat to carry out more punitive strikes if Assad is once again accused of using chemical weapons will likely top their agenda.
Several rounds of UN-backed peace talks have failed to end the Syrian conflict, which has killed more than 320,000 people since March 2011.