US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (C)
walks upon his arrival at the Vnukovo II
Government airport in Moscow on April 11,
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson flew
into Moscow Tuesday to confront the Kremlin
over its support for Bashar al-Assad as the
US questioned if Russia was complicit in an
alleged chemical weapons attack.
Tillerson is the first senior US official to
visit Moscow since President Donald Trump
took office promising to seek closer
anti-terrorist cooperation with Russia, but
as he arrived relations were already tense.
Last week, the US fired a volley of cruise
missiles at a Syrian airbase in response to
an alleged regime attack using a suspected
nerve agent that killed at least 87
civilians in a rebel-held town, many of them
Russia, which along with Iran has deployed
forces to help Assad in the six-year-old
civil war, reacted with fury to the US
strike and continues to cast doubt on the
regime's involvement in the chemical attack,
to Washington's disgust.
Tillerson did not cancel his visit,
however, and he will hold talks with his
counterpart Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
on Wednesday. It is not yet clear whether an
expected meeting with President Vladimir
Putin will go ahead.
At the talks, Tillerson will challenge
Russia to distance itself from Assad and his
Iranian backers and to work with
Washington's Western and Arab allies to find
a political solution to the conflict with
Syria under new leadership.
As the top diplomat landed, a senior US
official accused Moscow of carrying out a
misinformation campaign to "confuse the
world" and said Washington was investigating
whether Russia was complicit in the alleged
chemical weapons attack.
"How is it possible that their forces were
co-located with the Syrian forces that
planned prepared and carried out this
chemical weapons attack at the same
installation and did not have
foreknowledge?" said the official, speaking
on condition of anonymity.
"We do think it is a question worth asking
- Evidence against Assad mounting -
Speaking to reporters before he left a G7
foreign ministers' meeting in Italy for
Moscow, Tillerson said: "Russia has really
aligned itself with the Assad regime, the
Iranians, and Hezbollah.
"Is that a long-term alliance that serves
Russia's interest?" he asked.
"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?"
As Tillerson flew to Russia, evidence
against Damascus appeared to mount. Assad
foe Turkey said blood and urine samples
taken from victims of the alleged attack
confirmed that the banned sarin nerve agent
Britain, France and the United States later
presented a new UN draft resolution
demanding an investigation of the suspected
chemical attack in Syria after the Security
Council failed last week to agree on a
Russia has remained unmoved by the
international chorus of outrage. The foreign
ministry called Tillerson's comments "muscle
flexing ahead of the talks" and he is likely
to face a chilly reception whether or not he
The Russian leader in televised comments on
Tuesday not only repeated his defence of
Assad but suggested the Syrian leader's
rebel opponents were preparing future faked
attacks in order to encourage US
Putin said Moscow also wanted to see a
"thorough" probe of the incident conducted
through the UN and slammed US accusations as
reminiscent of the weapons of mass
destruction claims that led to the invasion
of Iraq in 2003.
In Italy, Tillerson attempted to rally the
world's leading economies behind fresh
sanctions against Assad's regime but,
despite much outrage over the Khan Sheikhun
killings, he failed to win consensus.
He did go some way towards clarifying the US
position on Syria, however, which had become
muddled by apparently conflicting statements
from senior officials in Trump's
administration about Assad's fate.
- Regime's 'barbarism' -
Tillerson said the US goal of defeating the
Islamic State extremist group in Syria
remains a priority, but that Washington
hopes a UN-led peace process will allow the
Syrian people to oust their own leader.
"To be clear, our military action was a
direct response to the Assad regime's
barbarism," Tillerson told the G7, insisting
that the missile strikes were not the start
of a military effort aimed at regime change.
As G7 ministers urged a new diplomatic push
to end the conflict and create a lasting
peace for a unified Syria, Tillerson said:
"Our hope is Bashar al-Assad will not be
part of that future."
The ministers however failed to agree on
whether fresh sanctions should be imposed on
Damascus -- or Russia itself.
"At the moment there is no consensus on new
sanctions as an effective instrument,"
Italy's Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano
said, after his British counterpart Boris
Johnson had raised the issue.
In a show of defiance as it came under fire
for its ties, Moscow said it would host the
foreign ministers of Syria and Iran for
three-way talks after Tillerson's visit.
Washington's threat to carry out more
punitive strikes if Assad is once again
accused of using chemical weapons will
likely top their agenda.
Several rounds of UN-backed peace talks have
failed to end the Syrian conflict, which has
killed more than 320,000 people since March