U.S., Allies Show Unity on Syria Before Tillerson Moscow Visit

  • Tillerson will push Russia to stop backing Assad regime
  • Still no word on whether he’ll meet Putin on 24-hour stop

The U.S., Gulf states and European allies projected their unified opposition to Russia’s backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with an emergency meeting on the sidelines of a Group of Seven gathering Tuesday.

While no readout was immediately available from the hour-long meeting, the goal was to arm Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with a single, strong message for Russian leaders when he travels to Moscow later Tuesday in the first visit by a U.S. Cabinet official since President Donald Trump took office in January.

The stakes for Tillerson’s visit grew after an April 4 chemical weapons attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun that the U.S. and its allies blamed on Syria. The U.S. responded by launching 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base, a move Putin called an act of “aggression against a sovereign state.” Russia says the original chemical attack was the result of Syrian jets hitting a terrorist weapons depot.

The U.S. and European nations are mulling new Syria-related sanctions that could punish Russia for its military backing of Assad’s regime. Late Monday, Trump and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said Tillerson’s visit to Moscow is a chance to persuade Russia to cut its support for the Syrian regime.

‘Window of Opportunity’

“The prime minister and the president agreed that a window of opportunity now exists in which to persuade Russia that its alliance with Assad is no longer in its strategic interest,” May’s office said in an emailed statement.

Trump spoke separately to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also “expressed support for the action of the United States and agreed with President Trump on the importance of holding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accountable,” the White House said.

“We are looking very carefully at additional sanctions,” Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland told BBC Radio 4. “I don’t want to leave you with the impression that we are hesitant,” she said. “But it’s important for us to go through all the necessary legal steps.”

There was still no word on whether Tillerson would meet Putin during his visit, which will last less than 24 hours. On April 10, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said such a meeting wasn’t yet in Putin’s schedule, though he said Russia “never gives information about such meetings.”

U.S. Priorities

Not meeting Tillerson would be a major snub by Putin and a reflection of his displeasure over the U.S. air strikes. He met with John Kerry on each of his three trips to Russia, though the former secretary of state was made to wait three hours to see him in December 2015.

The U.S. says its priorities haven’t changed in Syria: first, defeat Islamic State, which still occupies the city of Raqqa. Then focus attention on a political transition to end Syria’s civil war and possibly bring an end to Assad’s rule.

On the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting on Syria, Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano called his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif to seek his help in persuading Assad to spare civilians, an Italian foreign ministry official said.

“All G-7 states want a political solution without a further spiral of violence,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said in a statement from Lucca. “We want to convince Russia to support the political process for a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict.”

— With assistance by Svenja O'Donnell

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