As he prepared to fly to Moscow Tuesday for his first official visit there as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson issued an ultimatum, telling Russian President Vladimir Putin that he has to choose between siding with the U.S. and its allies or remaining committed to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Tillerson added that the U.S. sees no future role for Assad in Syria but stopped short of directly calling for him to step down.
Tillerson met with his fellow G-7 foreign ministers in Italy on Tuesday morning before his flight to Russia but the group could not agree on tightening sanctions against the Kremlin for its continued support of the Assad regime — something both the U.K. and Canada have called for.
Following the meeting, Tillerson said it is clear “to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end,” and that Russia must choose who to align with: the U.S. and its allies, or Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said all sides agreed there can be no definite solution to the Syria problem with Assad still in charge, despite his Italian counterpart warning that Russia must not be “pushed into a corner” over Syria.
The trip to Moscow comes just days after a U.S. missile strike hit a Syrian government air base in response to a poisonous gas attack that the U.S. and its allies believe was carried out by forces loyal to the Syrian president — though the Russians say there is no proof of this claim. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the airstrikes as an act of “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law.”
Tillerson is due to meet his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, but the Kremlin said Monday there was no meeting scheduled between the secretary of state and Putin during the two-day visit — though a spokesperson didn’t completely rule out the possibility, and it is unclear if such a meeting was ever in the cards.
Some see the move as a snub – a direct response to the U.S. missile attacks last Thursday. Putin and Tillerson have had several meetings in the past prior to his role in the Trump administration. In 2013, when Tillerson was the chief executive of Exxon, Putin personally awarded him a top Russian state award known as the “Order of Friendship.” Prior to that, Putin even hosted Tillerson at his own private residence outside Moscow to celebrate an oil deal struck between Exxon and Rosneft, the Russian state-controlled oil group.
As secretary of state during the Obama administration, John Kerry often met Putin as well as the Russian foreign minister when he visited Moscow.
The Friday airstrikes by U.S. forces have soured relations between Moscow and Washington, which had been unusually warm since Donald Trump won the presidential election last November.
Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, Trump’s son Eric said his father would not be “pushed around” by Putin, and insisted that there would be “no one harder” than Trump if they “cross us.”
Appearing on the CBS political talk show “Face the Nation” earlier this week, Tillerson said, “The Russians have played now for some time the role of playing cover for Bashar al-Assad’s behavior.” He added there was no indication that Russia was involved in carrying out the attack, but Putin’s continued support for the Assad regime — which helped prevent the Syrian president from losing the civil war — has drawn strong criticism from the West.
On Monday, during a visit to Sant’Anna di Stazzema, the site of a Nazi massacre in Italy, Tillerson told reporters: “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.”
The U.S. missile strikes have backed Russia and Putin into a corner, where they will be determined to not be seen as bending to the will of Washington. “If they had had some patience in Washington, we could have worked on Assad. But how can our president turn against him now? It will look like he’s doing that under U.S. pressure; it will make him look weak,” one Russian diplomat told the Financial Times.