U.S. air strike gives Tillerson a boost for Moscow talks
By Lesley Wroughton and Yeganeh Torbati
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's visit to Moscow
this week will be an early test of whether the Trump administration can use any
momentum generated by striking a Syrian air base to craft and execute a
strategy to end the Syrian war.
Even before Trump ordered last week's strike on the air base in retaliation for
a nerve gas attack, Tillerson's visit was certain to be dominated by thorny
issues, including Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, an apparent
violation of an important arms control treaty, and seeing what cooperation, if
any, is possible in the fight against Islamic State.
Now, Tillerson, a former oil executive with no diplomatic experience, is
charged with avoiding a major U.S. confrontation with Russia while exacting
some concessions from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Those include getting
rid of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's remaining chemical weapons stocks and
pressing Assad to negotiate Syria's future.
Russia, along with Iran, is Assad's primary backer, and its intervention in
Syria's war has been crucial to ensuring his grip on power, although no longer
over the entire country.
Tillerson said he had not seen hard evidence that Russia knew ahead of time
about the chemical weapons attack but he planned to urge Moscow to rethink its
support for Assad in the April 12 talks.
"I'm hopeful that we can have constructive talks with the Russian government,
with Foreign Minister (Sergei) Lavrov and have Russia be supportive of a
process that will lead to a stable Syria," Tillerson told ABC's "The Week" on
The U.S. cruise missile strike on Thursday, meant to dissuade Assad from using
chemical weapons again, gives Tillerson more credibility with Russian officials
and will boost his efforts, observers and former officials said. Tillerson is
due to meet with Russian officials on Wednesday, and is expected to meet with
Putin and Lavrov.
"The demonstration of the administration's willingness to use force has the
potential to add some leverage to the diplomacy," said Antony Blinken, a deputy
to former Secretary of State John Kerry.
The U.S. strike - ordered less than three days after the gas attack - could
make it clear to Russia that the United States will hold Moscow accountable for
Assad, Blinken said.
Tillerson ought to be "very matter of fact" in his meetings, Blinken said,
sending Russia a message that: "If you don't rein him in, we will take further
Tillerson said on Thursday that Russia had "failed in its responsibility" to
remove Syria's chemical weapons under a 2013 agreement, which he argued showed
Russia was either complicit with the gas attacks or "simply incompetent."
Securing a Russian commitment on eliminating Assad's chemical weapons is likely
to be first on his agenda, said Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant
secretary of defense in the Obama administration.
RUSSIAN LEVERAGE WITH ASSAD
The Russian talks will be a major test of Tillerson's diplomatic skills. As a
former chief executive at Exxon Mobil, he has experience doing business in
Russia, but no background in the often public negotiations that international
It also is unclear if Trump, who has expressed skepticism of multilateral
institutions such as the European Union and United Nations, will have patience
for the protracted negotiations that a comprehensive deal on Syria would
Russia condemned the U.S. missile strike as illegal and Putin said it would
harm U.S.-Russia ties. Moscow also said it would keep military channels of
communication open with Washington, but would not exchange any information
It was an unforeseen turn of events for Trump, who praised Putin repeatedly
during last year's election campaign and said he would like to work more
closely with Russia to defeat Islamic State. Just a little more than a week ago,
top administration officials were signaling that removing Assad is no longer a
But one senior official said it was significant that Russia suspended, and did
not cancel, cooperation with the United States after the American air strike.
Nor did Lavrov cancel Tillerson's visit to Moscow, suggesting that Russia may
be willing to tolerate the single strike. As of this weekend, the talks were
"They're going to try to draw a line around this incident," said Alexander
Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia during the George W. Bush
administration. "They are still not giving up on working with the Trump
The Trump administration also wants to keep the focus in Syria on defeating
Islamic State rather than opening a conflict with Russia or Syria's government.
Another U.S. official said one hope is that Moscow will see Tillerson's visit
and a discussion about how to cooperate to stop Assad's use of banned weapons
as a tacit acknowledgement of Russia's great power status, one of Putin's main
"The strikes aren't necessarily a bad thing for Russia," said Andrew Tabler, a
fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Russia's had a very
hard time getting President Assad to come to the negotiating table in any kind
of meaningful way."
Now, Tabler said, the Russians can point to more U.S. strikes as the price of
further intransigence by Assad.