Washington, D.C.

Tillerson jabs at Russia over Syria’s chemical weapons use

Comments far more critical of government
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is taking a hard line against Russia on the eve of his first diplomatic trip to Moscow, calling the country “incompetent” for allowing Syria to hold on to chemical weapons and accusing Russia of trying to influence elections in Europe using the same methods it employed in the United States.

Tillerson’s comments, made in interviews aired Sunday, were far more critical of the Russian government than any public statements by President Donald Trump, who has been an increasingly lonely voice for getting along better with Russia. They seemed to reflect Tillerson’s expectation, which he has expressed privately to aides and members of Congress, that the U.S. relationship with Russia is already reverting to the norm: one of friction, distrust and mutual efforts to undermine each other’s reach.

“This was inevitable,” said Philip H. Gordon, a former Middle East coordinator at the National Security Council who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Trump’s early let’s-be-friends initiative was incompatible with our interests, and you knew it would end with tears.” The Russians’ behavior has not changed, Gordon added, and they “are using every means they can — cyber, economic arrangements, intimidation — to reinsert themselves around the Middle East and Europe.”

Yet as Tillerson arrived in Italy to meet with foreign ministers before making the first visit to Moscow by a top Trump administration official, the administration was sending conflicting signals about U.S. policy on Syria and the future of relations with its patron Russia.

Tillerson said explicitly that the U.S. attack last week on a Syrian air base was intended solely to halt future chemical attacks and not to destabilize or overthrow the government of President Bashar Assad. Instead, he said that defeating the Islamic State remained the first priority. Only then, he said, would he turn to a cease-fire process leading to elections, so that “the Syrian people can decide the fate of Assad.”

But the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, suggested that such a process was doomed as long as Assad was in power. “We know there’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime,” she said on CNN. “If you look at his actions, if you look at the situation, it’s going to be hard to see a government that’s peaceful and stable with Assad.”

That statement stood in contrast not only to Tillerson’s comments but also to her own remarks a week ago — before Assad carried out his latest chemical weapons attack on civilians — in which she insisted that his departure from office was not a diplomatic priority for the United States.

Still, the overall tone of suspicion and condemnation of Russia’s actions in Syria indicated that Trump’s top national security advisers were nudging him back to a more traditional Russia policy. From his days as chief executive of Exxon Mobil, Tillerson knows Russian President Vladimir Putin and once received a friendship award from him, and he is aware of the suspicions surrounding those ties and has gone the furthest in the administration in separating himself from the Russian leader.

But that presents a difficult task for Tillerson when he arrives in Moscow Tuesday. While he must offer sharp warnings to his counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, and to Putin if they meet — it was unclear Sunday whether a meeting had been scheduled — he must also find a way forward with them in countering the Islamic State and then dealing with Assad.

The challenges have only multiplied in recent days. The Russians, angry about the attack on the air base, have threatened to cut off a communication line that the U.S. and Russian militaries have used to notify each other about air operations in Syria. And the attack has forced Putin into a tighter relationship with Assad, perhaps tighter than the Russian leader wants.

Haley, who, like Tillerson, is new to diplomacy, has also apparently concluded that a hard line toward Russia is the safest course. The contrast between her remarks and Trump’s warm words for Putin on the campaign trail — as well as his refusal to acknowledge Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election — has been striking.

The Trump administration’s Syria policy has been difficult to parse. Tillerson, in his first television appearances since taking office, seemed to describe two different strategic objectives: halting chemical attacks and ultimately negotiating a cease-fire. But he made it clear that he had no intention of backing a military intervention that would overthrow Assad. That suggested that as long as the dictator used conventional means to kill his own people — barrel bombs instead of sarin gas — the United States would keep its distance.

“I think what the United States and our allies want to do is to enable the Syrian people to make that determination” about Assad’s fate, Tillerson said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” — a line that was used often by his predecessor in the Obama administration, John Kerry. “You know, we’ve seen what violent regime change looks like in Libya and the kind of chaos that can be unleashed.”

Those remarks indicate that Trump does not yet have a grander strategy for Syria. Longtime Middle East experts said that might be a good thing.

“I for one am glad he does not have a fully thought-through strategy on Syria, because if he did he’d probably get it wrong,” said Ryan C. Crocker, perhaps the most experienced U.S. career diplomat in the region, who is now dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

“There are too many variables, too many unknowns,” he said, among them the expectation among U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia, that Trump should emphasize getting rid of Assad over defeating the Islamic State.

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