Rex Tillerson Faces Escalating Tensions In Moscow

On Monday, foreign ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) major industrialized nations met with the hopes of breaking Russian ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As of late, Washington has demonstrated a strategy shift towards retribution. Last week, US missiles hit a Syrian airbase in retaliation to what the United States and its allies claimed was a poison gas attack against civilians, which they believe was commanded by the Syrian government. The attack has definitively shifted Western attitudes and heightened tensions towards the region. The US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is set to arrive in Moscow later this week.

According to Reuters, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has made it adamantly clear what the goals of the West should be at this point in time. Johnson referred to the US strike as a “game changer.” He suggested that Tillerson should be ready to give Russia an ultimatum, such as “to say to the Russians ‘this is your choice…stick with that tyrant or work with us to find a better solution” (Reuters). Johnson also implied that the use of sanctions may be considered as means of persuasion. Recently, Russia denied accusations that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own population, maintaining that it will not cut ties. Even prior to increased tensions, Tillerson’s visit was guaranteed to be defined by conflicting issues, namely the Russian interference in the US election. The Kremlin also stated on Monday that Tillerson was not scheduled to meet with President Vladimir Putin this week, a statement that could point to signs of trouble. Additionally, Tillerson has no prior diplomatic experience and is now expected to exact concessions from Moscow, while also avoiding what could be a major confrontation.

It is anticipated that Tillerson will discuss cooperating with Moscow on eliminating Assad’s remaining chemical weapons, and negotiating Syria’s future. Russia’s intervention in Syria has been fundamental towards maintaining Assad’s hold on power. Tillerson has reportedly stated that he intends to hold constructive talks with the Russian government and galvanize support for a strategy directed towards regional peace. Furthermore, Tillerson claims to have not seen hard evidence that Russia was aware of the chemical weapons attack prior to its occurrence. However, Russia had “failed in its responsibility” to remove Syria’s chemical weapons under a 2013 agreement (Reuters). This arguably demonstrates either complicity or complacency. This week, securing Russia’s commitment to

With that said, this week, securing Russia’s commitment in helping to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons should be Rex Tillerson’s utmost priority. Russia suspended cooperation with the US after the airstrike, condemning it as illegal. It is important that Tillerson mediates this potential cause for alarm, especially if the Trump administration wants to “keep the focus in Syria on defeating the Islamic State rather than opening a conflict with Russia or Syria’s government” (Reuters). If any stability is to be brought to the region, all sides must be willing to cooperate over the course of complex and protracted negotiations.