Secretary of State Rex Tillerson drew a line in the sand Monday and told Russia to either get on the U.S.’s side or continue supporting the Syrian regime against its own long-term interests in the Middle East.
Just before leaving the Group of Seven meeting in Lucca, Italy on his way to meetings in Moscow, Tillerson said Russia had failed in its responsibility to rid Syria of chemical weapons, adding that the U.S. “cannot let this happen again.”
Tillerson said Russian President Vladimir Putin now has two choices: help the U.S. and its allies arrange the end of the Bashar al-Assad regime or side with Iran and Hezbollah in propping up the pariah government in Damascus.
“We want to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people,” Tillerson told reporters. “Russia can be a part of that future and play an important role, or Russia can maintain its alliance with this group, which we believe is not going to serve Russia’s interests longer term.”
Tillerson’s remarks were the most stridently anti-Assad comments he has made since the U.S. launched airstrikes against Assad’s forces in retaliation for a chemical attack on civilians, the Associated Press reported. In the week leading up to the G-7 conference, the Trump administration had sent mixed messages about whether or when al-Assad should step down. Tillerson said on ABC’s This Week that destroying ISIS is Washington’s first priority, after which it would turn its attention to negotiating a transition of power in Damascus. (RELATED: Tillerson Says Destroying ISIS Still ‘First Priority’ In Syria)
The secretary of state’s unequivocal stance clarifies, for now, the U.S. position on al-Assad and Russia’s role in deciding the fate of the Syrian leader. Tillerson noted that previous cease-fire agreements brokered by Russia and Iran–known as the Astana talks–could create a path toward a comprehensive political transition, the AP reported.
“It is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end,” he said. “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.” (Kremlin Official: Putin Not Interested In Meeting With Tillerson)
The situation in Syria will figure prominently in Tillerson’s meeting with Kremlin officials this week. He is scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday, although it is unclear if he will also get a chance to speak to Putin. A Kremlin spokesman said Monday that a meeting with the secretary of state is not on Putin’s official schedule.
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