The Cable

What to Expect When You’re Expecting (Rex Tillerson in Moscow)

Despite being seemingly at odds on Syria, experts say there’s still some room for agreement.

rex in moscow

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson landed in Moscow Tuesday for tense talks with his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, as the Trump administration accused Russia of trying to cover up a chemical weapons attack carried out by the Syrian regime.

As Tillerson prepared for difficult discussions on Wednesday, the Trump administration leveled its most serious accusations to date against the Syrian and Russian governments, alleging the two had sought to float a series of “false narratives” in the aftermath of last week’s deadly sarin gas attack against Syrian civilians.

The charges of collusion between Damascus and Moscow came in the form of a declassified National Security Council report, which said U.S. intelligence agencies had evidence that sarin had been used in the attack, and accused Russia of a cover-up in its aftermath. The declassified document said that the United States has gathered proof including satellite imagery, intercepted communications, and laboratory analysis.

Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin, without offering any detailed evidence, insisted that rebels had chemical weapons, and were likely to use them to try to get the United States to strike Syria again.

Those diametrically opposing views of what’s going on in Syria  — and what it could mean for the fate of the Assad regime — played out on the eve of Tillerson’s meeting with Lavrov. (It’s still not clear if Tillerson will meet with Putin.)

This is hardly the way most expected the meeting to go when Tillerson became secretary of state just a few weeks ago. President Donald Trump had campaigned on closer ties with Russia, and Tillerson had longtime business ties there and close relations with senior Russian officials, not to mention a Russian Order of Friendship. That created expectations that the two countries would seek to forge a more cooperative relationship on issues like fighting terrorism, but tensions over the rapidly-shifting situation in Syria — not to mention the festering sore of occupied Ukraine — threaten the gathering.

At a news conference Tuesday, Defense Secretary James Mattis warned the Syrian regime against using chemical weapons again but insisted the administration had no plans to drastically change its policy on Syria and tried to downplay tensions with Russia, which has provided crucial air power for Damascus.

Our military policy in Syria has not changed. Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS,” Mattis told reporters.

The Pentagon chief said he was “confident the Russians will act in their own best interest and there is nothing in their best interest to say they want this situation to go out of control.”

Mattis also said that the United States had taken precautions to avoid killing Russian military personnel at the Syrian airfield.

The State Department tried to manage expectations even before the April 6 U.S. attack on Al Shayrat airfield in Syria threw a wrench into bilateral relations. Prior to the missile strikes, a State Department official said: “No decisions have been made this stage to shift towards more cooperation. This trip is an exploratory trip to see what the potential is.”

Asked if the U.S. attack on the airbase had changed any calculations, a State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy, “I would expect the full range of issues to be discussed and I do not want to get ahead of those discussions.”

Now that Washington has pulled a 180-degree shift in what passes for its Syria policy, indicating that Assad should go rather than stay as president, one big question will be whether Tillerson can convince the Russians of that. Assad for years has been a Russian client, and has since 2015 relied on Russian airpower to pummel rebel forces and turn holdout cities to rubble.

But Syria’s importance for Russia goes far beyond Assad; the warm-water Syrian port of Tartus, Russia’s only foreign naval base, is particularly important for Moscow, which has been trying for years to re-establish a military presence in the Middle East it last enjoyed in the 1970s. As long as Russia can keep its toehold in the eastern Mediterranean, it may not care who is taking orders in Damascus.

Russians have long signalled “an openness to moving away from Assad personally,” Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute. Indeed, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov repeated that just last week.

Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute said Tillerson and Lavrov likely will speak of possible replacements for Assad “that don’t tilt Syria away from Russia” — perhaps a general “without as much blood on his hands.”

“The question is — have we moved the ball on Assad enough for the Russians?” said Rojansky.

Still, both sides will work hard to make it a productive meeting, he said, “because that’s what both sides want, despite all the difficulties.” (One possible monkeywrench, according to Rubin: U.S. concern over possible Russian ownership of a U.S. refiner.)

But there’s still Ukraine, the original irritant in relations between Russia and the West. Tillerson doesn’t seem to think the illegal sundering of a European country is of much concern to the United States — he reportedly asked his counterparts at the G-7 summit this week why American taxpayers should care about the conflict in Ukraine — but officially, the U.S. position remains the same.

In the briefing last week, the senior State Department official said Tillerson will “push on the Ukraine issue for Russia to meet its Minsk commitments,” and that sanctions will stay in place until that has happened.

Lavrov, Rojansky expects, will respond by saying that it can’t and won’t meet the obligations under that accord, because the Ukrainian side won’t fulfill its commitments. And the two will remain at an impasse.

“You have to talk about it,” Rojansky said, “but there’s also not much to say.”

Photo credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

This article was updated with comments from Defense Secretary James Mattis at a Pentagon news conference.


Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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