Tillerson Visits Moscow Without Game Plan

The Trump administration veered toward deeper conflict with Russia on Tuesday, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Moscow
US Secretary of State Rex TillersonUS Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
Meeting allies earlier Tuesday in Italy, Tillerson delivered an ultimatum to Russia: Side either with the US and its dozens of coalition partners or face isolation

The US administration has veered toward deeper conflict with Russia on Tuesday as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Moscow, gambling that an unpredictable new president armed with the willingness to threaten military action gives the US much-needed leverage to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Yet there were no guarantees Tillerson’s arguments would prove any more successful than the former administration’s failed effort to peel Russia away from its Syrian ally.

Tillerson’s mission, coming days after 59 Tomahawk missiles struck a Syrian airbase, also carries serious risks: If Russia brushes off the warnings, US President Donald Trump could be forced into another show of force in Syria or see his credibility wane, AP reported.

“I hope that what the Russian government concludes is that they have aligned themselves with an unreliable partner in Bashar al-Assad,” Tillerson said before flying to the Russian capital.

But Tillerson’s claim is one ex-president Barack Obama, too, argued for years, only to see Assad outlast his own term in office. And the Trump administration’s nascent Syria policy seems to be increasingly centering on the same tactic Obama unsuccessfully employed: persuading Russia, Assad’s staunchest ally, to abandon him.

The parallels have not gone unnoticed by Russian President Vladimir Putin as US officials have accused his military of knowing about Assad’s recent chemical weapons attack ahead of time and trying to help cover it up. Calling for a UN investigation, Putin held to his claim that it was actually Assad’s opponents who introduced chemical weapons into Syria’s harrowing civil war.

“We have seen it all already,” Putin said.

Jabbing at US credibility, the Russian leader reminded reporters about unfounded US claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, used to justify America’s 2003 invasion.

The escalating dispute over last week’s events in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun has thrust Washington and Moscow into a level of tension rarely seen since the end of the Cold War. The animosity is especially striking given widespread speculation that Trump, who lavishly praised Putin during his campaign, would pursue rapprochement with Moscow.

Even on Syria, the positions appeared to be hardening. Only a week ago, top Trump officials had spoken off deprioritizing past US efforts to remove Assad from office and accepting the reality that 18 months of Russian military intervention had secured him in power.

Since last Thursday’s cruise missile strike, Tillerson and other US officials appear to have reverted to the past administration’s rhetoric of insisting that Assad is on the way out, without outlining any strategy for making that happen.

Putin’s government has been incensed by the Trump administration’s public accusations and even more so by US military intervention in Syria.

Meeting allies earlier Tuesday in Italy, Tillerson delivered an ultimatum to Russia: Side either with the US and its dozens of coalition partners or face isolation.

Putin seems undeterred. Hours after Tillerson’s warning, his office announced Russia would host Syria and Iran’s foreign ministers for a three-way meeting on Friday, the day after Tillerson departs.

Trump may not have much to offer Russia currently. Even if Moscow cooperates, the allegations of election meddling have weakened the US leader’s hand to deliver on any significant carrot, such as a loosening of the US and European economic sanctions.

And wielding the stick of potential military action is risky. Trump’s cruise missile orders without boots on the ground can go only so far, which is inadequate to dislodge the Syrian president.

As much as Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia want the US to push their agenda in Syria, Trump risks losing his credibility when Tillerson returns red-faced from Moscow.   


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