Tillerson Heads to Russia as Relations Dip Over Syria Attacks

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is heading to Moscow for talks Wednesday with Russian leaders amid a spike in tensions over attacks in Syria. 

Tillerson accused Moscow of complicity or incompetence in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians, while Russia called the U.S. response, a missile attack on a Syrian air base, an illegal act of aggression with negative consequences. 

Before his first visit to Russia as U.S. Secretary of State, Tillerson — in Italy for G7 meetings — attended a ceremony to mark a 1944 Nazi massacre of civilians. “We remember the events of Aug. 12, 1944. that occurred in Sant’Anna. And we rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” he said. 

Tillerson’s pointed comment came just days after U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian air base allegedly used to launch gas attacks last Tuesday that killed up to 100 Syrian civilians.

The top U.S. diplomat has accused Russia of failing to prevent the attack and is urging the Kremlin to rethink its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — a call likely to be refused, say analysts.

“But, right now, off the U.S. strike, it would be very difficult for Moscow to change its support for Assad. Because any change as … any change can be perceived as something which is done under the U.S. pressure,” said the Russian International Affairs Council’s Andrei Kortunov.  

“The official Russian position is that it’s for Syrians to decide who will be the boss there,” said Victor Kremenyuk, of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of USA and Canada Studies. “Indeed, the business of the Syrian people [is] to elect their own leader, be it Assad or somebody else.”

‘Dangerous development’

Damascus, and its Russian backers, deny any chemical weapons were used. Russia’s Ministry of Defense claims the poison gas was being stored by Syrian rebels and released after the warehouse was bombed. Russia accused the U.S. of illegal aggression with the Friday missile strikes on Syria.

Russia cut off Syrian air safety cooperation with the U.S., and a joint command center for Syrian operations run by Moscow, Tehran and Damascus threatened to respond to any further U.S. attacks. 

“That’s quite possible that American or coalition aircrafts and missiles in Syria would be attacked by Russian and, probably, Syrian or Iranian anti-aircraft defense or fighter bombers,” said Kremenyuk. “And that’s, indeed, a very dangerous development.”

‘Mistrust on both sides’

Despite tensions, and unlike his British counterparts, Tillerson’s Moscow visit was not canceled — a good sign, some say, for efforts to prevent a U.S.-Russia conflict.

“But, I think it’s clear that the starting position for these discussions are not that good,” said Kortunov.  “There is a lot of mistrust on both sides. And I’m sure that emotions will fly high at these meetings.”

The British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, canceled his April 10 trip to Moscow after the poison gas attack. Johnson and Tillerson met Monday in Italy ahead of the G7 summit. 

Even if little progress can be made on Syria, say analysts, Tillerson and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have much to talk about.  

“Syria is not the only issue here,” Kremenyuk said. “[The] Korean peninsula, South China Sea, for instance, the so-called Islamic State, international terrorism, Ukraine, and so on.”

Tillerson’s Moscow meetings, say analysts, could set the tone for U.S.-Russia relations. 

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