Tillerson visits Russia as tensions over Syria flare


(CNN)What a difference three months makes.


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson -- a one-time recipient of the Russian Order of Friendship from Russian President Vladimir Putin whose appointment as top US diplomat was seen as a nod to the Trump administration's pro-Russian inclinations -- arrives Tuesday in Moscow amid seething tensions over the ongoing conflict in Syria.

The trip is the most sensitive to date for Tillerson. The secretary of state is seeking to leverage both international condemnation over the Syrian regime's alleged use of Sarin gas against civilians and President Donald Trump's recent display of American military might to weaken Russia's support for President Bashar al-Assad.

Several State Department officials told CNN Tillerson's strategy for the trip is to highlight Russia's responsibility and culpability for Assad's actions in an effort to shame Putin into doing more to end the conflict and drive a wedge between Moscow and Damascus.

"I'm hopeful that we can have constructive talks with the Russia government, with Foreign Minister (Sergey) Lavrov, and have Russia be supportive of a process that will lead to a stable Syria," Tillerson said on ABC's "This Week" ahead of the visit.

"Clearly, they are Bashar al-Assad's current ally," he added. "They should have the greatest influence on Bashar al-Assad, and certainly his decisions to use chemical weapons. They should have the greatest influence on him to cause him to no longer use those."

Tillerson's predecessor John Kerry held months of talks with Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, in an fruitless effort to find agreement on a ceasefire between the regime and the Syrian opposition, which could lead to a political process. Kerry and his aides often lamented President Barack Obama's stated unwillingness to use military action weakened his hand in those talks.

Now, the Trump administration's decision to undertake a retaliatory strike in response to the chemical weapons attack could give Tillerson leverage in his talks in Moscow.

"Secretary Tillerson's visit to Moscow before our military action in Syria was already heavy-laden with issues, including Crimea, Ukraine, all different types of issues on the agenda," former US ambassador to Syria Edward Djerejian told CNN's Fredricka Whitfield Sunday.

"But now with this issue also on the table, I think, frankly, my own judgment is that Tillerson goes to Moscow more emboldened because the Russian President Putin, who makes the decisions, now sees that this administration will take military actions when it thinks certain lines have been crossed," he added.

Tillerson, who has shied away from the limelight since taking office, has been front and center this week defending the strikes.

To read more, please visit: http://www.cnn.com/2017/04/11/politics/rex-tillerson-putin-r...

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