Secretary of State Rex Tillerson isn’t leaving a whole lot of room for negotiation about the future of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad as he heads into high-stakes meetings with Russian officials in Moscow. In advance of his arrival in the Russian capital, Tillerson told reporters at a meeting of the G-7 countries in Italy that Russia must choose whether to align itself with Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, or to be a partner to the United States and the West. Either way, he said, Assad must go.
“It is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end,” Tillerson 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.”
Syria has been engaged in a complex civil war since mid-2011, and the Assad regime has earned international condemnation for indiscriminate attacks on civilians in rebel-held areas, including the use of chemical weapons and “barrel bombs.” A chemical attack on the city of Idlib last week killed dozens, including many children, and spurred President Trump to order airstrikes on the base from which the assault was launched.
Tillerson’s de facto ultimatum was issued after the secretary of state participated in a side meeting at the G-7 that involved representatives from a number of countries, including multiple Middle Eastern nations such as Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
“We want to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people -- Russia can be a part of that future and play an important role,” Tillerson said. “Or Russia can maintain its alliance with this group, which we believe is not going to serve Russia's interests longer term.”
But persuading Russia to abandon Assad will not be simple. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime is running short on allies, after his invasion of neighboring Ukraine in 2014 and the Kremlin’s continued support of armed rebels fighting the government in that country’s Donbas region.
In Syria, Russia has its only substantial military base in the eastern Mediterranean and its largest concentration of troops anywhere outside of Russia. The prospect of losing that foothold if Assad is overthrown may not be acceptable to the Kremlin from a strategic perspective.
In addition, Russia has put its reputation as an international power on the line in Syria. By supporting the Assad regime it has laid down a marker that it would be exceedingly embarrassing to back away from under US pressure, both internationally and domestically.
In a statement issued in advance of Tillerson’s arrival, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that the meeting’s purpose, “first and foremost” would be to assess the United States’ willingness to seek “stabilization and normalization” of the two countries’ increasingly contentious bilateral relationship.
“In connection with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s working visit to Russia beginning later today we would like to point out that we hope for productive talks," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement reported by the government-run TASS news agency. "This is important for the prospects of our bilateral interaction and for the general climate in the international scene."
The TASS report made no mention of the conflict in Syria. However, other Kremlin-run news services played up the issue. The RT website declared that Tillerson was arriving in Moscow as “tension spikes” over Syria.
Sputnik News cited Russian political analyst Pavel Svyatenkov, who declared that the stepped-up US activity in Syria was some sort of negotiating tactic. "Given that the situation in Syria remains Russia's bargaining chip in its talks with the United States, the Trump administration is apparently trying to deprive Russia of it," Svyatrenkov said.