Before Their Tete-A-Tete, Tillerson And Russians Trade Verbal Tit-For-Tat On Syria | KERA News

Before Their Tete-A-Tete, Tillerson And Russians Trade Verbal Tit-For-Tat On Syria

Apr 11, 2017

Rex Tillerson has touched down in Moscow. But well before his plane landed on the runway, heated words were already flying between the U.S. secretary of state and Russian officials over the situation in Syria.

"I hope that what the Russian government concludes is that they have aligned themselves with an unreliable partner in Bashar al-Assad," Tillerson said Tuesday at a meeting of G-7 foreign ministers in Lucca, Italy, shortly before he left for Russia.

Tillerson made plain that the chemical attack last week in Syria was unacceptable to the U.S., and that the U.S. retaliatory missile strike against a Syrian base presented Russia with a choice: either continue to side with Syria, Iran and the militant group Hezbollah, or join with the U.S. and other likeminded countries.

Tillerson said there was no room for both.

"Stockpiles and continued use demonstrate that Russia has failed in its ability to deliver on its 2013 commitment [to help get rid of Assad's chemical weapons]. It is unclear whether Russia failed to take this obligation serious or Russia has been incompetent," Tillerson said.

"But this distinction doesn't much matter to the dead."

Russian President Vladimir Putin — whom Tillerson will not be meeting with, according to the trip's latest itinerary — said that in Tillerson's recent rhetoric he heard echoes of the days leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

"It reminds me of the events in 2003 when U.S. envoys to the Security Council were demonstrating what they said were chemical weapons found in Iraq," Putin told reporters Tuesday, according to a translation by The Associated Press. "We have seen it all already."

Putin said Russia will request that the United Nations investigate the April 4 chemical weapons attack in the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun. He added that he has received information about planned "provocations" intended to place blame on Assad.

A minister in the Turkish government, which has launched an investigation of its own, reportedly said Tuesday there is "concrete evidence" that sarin gas was used in the attack that killed dozens of people near its southern border.

Health Minister Recep Akdag said traces of sarin gas was found in the blood and urine of victims, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency.

NPR's Lucian Kim reports that the unfolding drama surrounding the attack and its aftermath has soured Tillerson's visit, which had once borne great expectations from U.S. and Russian diplomats.

"They basically thought this would be the start of a great relationship, and that this would be the first step in organizing a summit between Trump and Putin," Kim says. "And the missile strike really came as a shock and will overshadow the talks."

Those hopes have given way to much more modest goals. The New York Times, for instance, refers to a senior American official in reporting that State Department officials now aim simply to clarify the areas of disagreement.

And even that might not be an easy task: Those areas of disagreement appear to be multiplying rather than diminishing.

"I think it is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end," Tillerson said of Russia's ally. "But the question of how that ends, and the transition itself could be very important, in our view, to the durability, the stability inside of a unified Syria."

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