Ahead of his trip to Moscow later this week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested Tuesday that the Russian government reevaluate its support for the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.
"Russia has really aligned itself with the Assad regime, the Iranians and Hezbollah. Is that a long-term alliance that serves Russia’s interest?” Tillerson said Tuesday at a press conference in Italy, where he is attending a meeting of the G7 nations. “Or would Russia prefer to realign with the United States, with other western countries and Middle-East countries who are seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis?”
Tillerson’s comments come in the wake of U.S. missile strikes last week against a Syrian military base where aircraft that delivered a chemical weapon attack against a rebel-controlled town in northern Syria are believed to have taken off from. Russia, the Assad regime’s most powerful international ally, was believed to have military personnel stationed at the air base, although the U.S. gave the Kremlin advance notice that the missile strikes would occur.
Repeating a talking point that other U.S. officials have made in the days since the missile strikes, Tillerson noted that Russia was supposed to have been a guarantor of a 2013 deal by which Syria was supposed to have turned over for destruction its entire chemical weapon stockpile. The secretary of state said it was unclear if Russia “failed to take this obligation seriously” or was “incompetent” but added that “this distinction doesn’t much matter to the dead.”
Tillerson’s harsh words for the Kremlin stand in contrast to the prevailing criticism of his nomination to serve as America’s top diplomat, chiefly that he had grown too close in his previous career as the head of Exxon-Mobil to the Russian government and specifically to Russian President Vladimir Putin. That Tillerson was personally awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship by Putin in 2012 was of particular concern to many in the Senate, which nonetheless eventually confirmed him.
Last week’s missile strikes were launched in the national security interests of the U.S., Tillerson said, because of the threat that chemical weapons pose to the ground situation in Syria, where the ongoing civil war is compounded by the international campaign against Islamic State militants. But the strikes were also a “direct response to the Assad regime’s barbarism” which left more than 70 people, including children young enough to be wearing diapers, dead.
Prior to last week’s chemical weapons attack, both Tillerson and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley had voiced a shift in U.S. position, that it would no longer insist on removing Assad from power amid larger negotiations for a peace deal in Syria. But since the chemical attack and subsequent missile strikes, both Haley and Tillerson have expressed renewed demands for Assad’s removal.
“It’s clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end. 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,” he said. “So that’s why we are not presupposing how that occurs. But I think it is clear that we see no further role for the Assad regime longer term.”