Even before President Trump ordered last week's strike on the air base in retaliation for a nerve gas attack, Secretary Tillerson's visit was certain to be dominated by thorny issues, including Russian interference in the 2016 US 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, Secretary Tillerson, a former oil executive with no diplomatic experience, is charged with avoiding a major US 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.
Rex Tillerson becomes first of Trump’s team to visit Moscow
I'm hopeful that we can have constructive talks with the Russian government
Russia, along with Iran, is President 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.
Secretary 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 President Assad in the April 12 talks.
“I'm hopeful that we can have constructive talks with the Russian government, with Foreign Minister Lavrov and have Russia be supportive of a process that will lead to a stable Syria,” Secretary Tillerson told ABC's The Week yesterday.
Mr Tillerson plans to urge Moscow to rethink its support for President Assad in the April 12 talks
Rex Tillerson: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know
Mon, April 3, 2017
Rex Tillerson, the former CEO and chairman of ExxonMobil Corporation, is Donald Trump‘s Secretary of State
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1. Tillerson Doesn’t Support Sanctions on Russia, Calling Them Ineffective
The US cruise missile strike on Thursday, meant to dissuade President Assad from using chemical weapons again, gives Secretary Tillerson more credibility with Russian officials and will boost his efforts, observers and former officials said.
Secretary 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.
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The US 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, Mr Blinken said.
Secretary Tillerson ought to be “very matter of fact” in his meetings, Mr Blinken said, sending Russia a message that: “If you don't rein him in, we will take further action.”
Secretary 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 President Assad's chemical weapons is likely to be first on his agenda, said Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defence in the Obama administration.