U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Moscow on Tuesday for what promises to be a difficult series of scheduled talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. While tensions between the two nations have been high in recent years, a chemical weapons attack carried out against civilians last Tuesday led to dramatic military action against Bashar al Assad’s Syrian regime ordered by President Trump’s administration on Thursday. Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, made clear their feelings on the event, calling it illegal under international law and doubling down on their support for the Syrian government in the world’s media.
Now Tillerson, who was once awarded the Russian Order of Friendship from Russian President Vladimir Putin for his work as an oil company executive, is heading into hostile territory with one goal on his mind: turn the tides of Russian support for Assad.
A number of State Department officials have indicated that Tillerson’s strategy throughout his interactions with the Kremlin will be to emphasize Russian responsibility and culpability for Assad’s actions – ensuring they recognize the real (or perceived) view the world’s community is developing of the Russian state and hoping it embarrasses them into waning their support for the Syrian leader.
“I’m hopeful that we can have constructive talks with the Russia government, with Foreign Minister (Sergey) Lavrov, and have Russia be supportive of a process that will lead to a stable Syria,” Tillerson said on ABC’s “This Week” ahead of the visit.
“Clearly, they are Bashar al-Assad’s current ally,” he added. “They should have the greatest influence on Bashar al-Assad, and certainly his decisions to use chemical weapons. They should have the greatest influence on him to cause him to no longer use those.”
Interesting to note the Secretary of State’s choice in wording: by referring to Russia as Assad’s “current” ally, it indicates that he hopes to change Syria’s standing within the Russian government through his visit. He also indicated that the end goal of his plan to enlist Russian support is not to remove Assad from power, but rather to ensure he will not use chemical weapons again – a statement technically in keeping with President Trump’s announced shift away from a U.S. policy that intended to see Assad dethroned as the Syrian president prior to Thursday’s missile strike.
“Secretary Tillerson’s visit to Moscow before our military action in Syria was already heavy-laden with issues, including Crimea, Ukraine, all different types of issues on the agenda,” former US ambassador to Syria Edward Djerejian told CNN on Sunday.
“But now with this issue also on the table, I think, frankly, my own judgment is that Tillerson goes to Moscow more emboldened because the Russian President Putin, who makes the decisions, now sees that this administration will take military actions when it thinks certain lines have been crossed,” he added.
Although a number of U.S. officials, including Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, have made pointed statements to the Russians indicating that they were complicit in the use of chemical weapons on civilians by Assad’s regime, Tillerson has taken a more delicate stance, claiming that he has yet to see any “hard evidence” that Russia was aware of Assad’s plans to use chemical weapons.
“I don’t draw conclusions of complicity at all,” Tillerson said. “But clearly, they’ve been incompetent, and perhaps they’ve simply been out-maneuvered by the Syrians.” When a level of guilt regarding committing international war crimes is the subject of discussion, accusations of incompetence are technically the friendlier option.
Pressure from Tillerson is expected to compound other international leaders applying any level of influence they can on Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw his support for Assad’s regime. Whether or not the United States would shift back to a policy aimed at overthrowing Assad if his ties with Russia begin to waiver is yet to be seen, but seems as though it could still be possible.
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