Tillerson To Press Russia On Syria As Trump's Detente Hopes Stall
Carl Schreck April 11, 2017
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is set to challenge Russian officials in Moscow over the Kremlin's backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after a deadly suspected chemical weapons attack last week.
Tillerson was set to meet Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other Russian officials on April 12, days after U.S. missiles bombarded a Syrian air base that Washington alleges was used to launch a poison gas attack that killed dozens in a rebel-held Syrian town.
Tillerson's arrival in Moscow the previous day came amid increasingly sharp rhetoric from both sides and mounting doubts about the likelihood of the kind of rapprochement that Trump voiced support for during last year's presidential campaign.
Trump repeatedly said he wanted to improve ties with Moscow that have been severely strained over the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, though his administration has shown no clear signs of easing policies enacted by his predecessor, Barack Obama, aimed at pressuring and isolating the Kremlin.
Trump escalated Washington's standoff with Russia last week by ordering a barrage of cruise missile strikes against the Syrian air base following the suspected chemical weapons attack that killed more than 80 people.
The U.S. operation incensed Moscow, Assad's main backer in the six-year-old civil war in Syria, which called the missile strikes a violation of international law.
"It is clear to us the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end," Tillerson told reporters on April 11 prior to departing Italy for Moscow. "We hope that the Russian government concludes that they have aligned themselves with an unreliable partner in Bashar Al-Assad."
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, chose the day of Tillerson's arrival in Moscow to lash out at Washington in his first public comments on Syria since the U.S. missile strikes.
Putin told reporters that Moscow would appeal to a UN agency in The Hague to conduct an investigation into the chemical weapons deaths.
He added that Russia had obtained intelligence concerning planned "provocations" involving chemical weapons that would be used to accuse Assad's government.
"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 during a televised press conference on April 11.
Putin frequently met with former Secretary of State John Kerry during official visits to Russia by Obama's top diplomat. It was not immediately clear, however, whether Putin would meet with Tillerson during this week's visit.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said prior to Tillerson's arrival that Putin did not have a meeting with the U.S. diplomat on his schedule "yet."
'Show Us What You've Got, Cowboy'
The Kremlin greeted Trump's stunning victory in November with cautious optimism, while political proxies loyal to President Vladimir Putin were more enthusiastic that the new Republican president would pursue more favorable policies toward Moscow.
Publicly, however, the new administration's approach to Russia on key issues has differed little from that of Trump's Democratic predecessor.
The Trump administration has said it will maintain sanctions on Russia over the Kremlin's 2014 seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its backing of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
It has also issued critical statements about Russia's record on human rights and political freedoms, including a recent politically tinged conviction of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, and reports of alleged brutal violence against LGBT people in Russia's southern Chechnya region.
And on the day Tillerson arrived in Moscow, Trump formally signed off on Montenegro's accession to NATO, the Western military alliance whose usefulness the U.S. president had previously questioned and whose expansion has long angered Russia.
This week's visit by Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO once given a state award by Putin for his longtime work with the company in Russia, is "not going to be the visit that I think the Russians maybe were expecting three months ago," said Steven Pifer, a former longtime State Department official who served as ambassador to Ukraine under President Bill Clinton.
Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, told RFE/RL that the Trump administration so far has shown a "a pretty conventional Republican mainstream policy approach" toward Moscow: "supportive of Ukraine, supportive of NATO, and pretty skeptical about Russia."
"My guess is on the Russian side, they're going to want to take the measure of Secretary Tillerson and see if there's any 'there' there in terms of a Trump reset policy," Pifer said. "But my guess is they're going to be disappointed as they talk about the tough issues like Syria and Ukraine."
Trump has faced mounting domestic pressure as well amid the ongoing fallout over Russia's alleged meddling in last year's presidential election. U.S. intelligence says the Kremlin directed a hacking-and-propaganda campaign that ultimately aimed to help Trump defeat his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, a charge Moscow denies.
The FBI and several U.S. senate committees are now investigating Russia's role in the election as well as contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials.
Both Democratic and Republican members of Congress have expressed concerns over Trump's stated desire to improve ties with Russia.
Vladimir Frolov, a well-connected foreign affairs analyst based in Moscow, told RFE/RL that during Tillerson's visit, the Kremlin hopes to get greater clarity on the Trump administration's policy on Syria following a series of mixed messages.
Trump's ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said over the weekend that regime change was a priority for Trump in Syria, while Tillerson said that defeating Islamic State militants in Syria was a priority.
He said Tillerson had "earned some goodwill" in Moscow "by knocking off talk of regime change in Syria" and downplaying suggestions that Russia was aware of a planned chemical attack in Syria ahead of time. This, Frolov said, would likely secure a meeting between Tillerson and Putin, plans for which were reported by Russian media citing unnamed sources.
As for Putin's sharp words ahead of Tillerson's meetings in Moscow, Frolov portrayed the president's comments as part of a negotiation strategy to getting "clarity and linkage" from the Texas native on "the whole package, not just nice words on Syria."
"It's a way of saying: 'Show us what you've got, cowboy,'" he said.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, Interfax, AFP, and TASS
Copyright (c) 2017. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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