Kremlin digs in on Assad as Rex Tillerson arrives in Moscow

PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks with U.S. Ambassador to Russia John F. Tefft upon his arrival at the Vnukovo II Government airport, in Moscow, on April 11, 2017.
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WATCH Rex Tillerson visits Moscow amid Syria conflict

Rex Tillerson landed in Moscow today for his first visit as secretary of state, amid unpromising circumstances, with the Kremlin glowering over the U.S. missile strikes on Syria last week and Russia and the United States at loggerheads over the conflict.

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In the weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Tillerson’s first trip to Russia was expected to be friendly, one to cement a new Russian-U.S. alliance against international terrorism and, for some, perhaps to initiate a grand bargain that would carve up the world into Russian and U.S. spheres of influence.

Instead, Tillerson finds himself in the same role played by his Obama-era predecessor John Kerry, flying to Moscow to tell the Kremlin to drop its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“Rex Tillerson instead of a big deal,” a headline in the influential Russian newspaper Kommersant read today, the day before he is scheduled to meet with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Speaking to reporters in Italy before flying to Moscow, Tillerson accused Russia of allowing or being “incompetent” in preventing the chemical attack in Syria’s Idlib province that killed dozens of people last week. He called on Russia to reassess its alliance with Assad and work with the U.S. and others to negotiate a real end to the Syrian war.

The comments reflect how sharply the Trump administration has changed course on the Syrian conflict since the chemical attack, particularly on the fate of Assad.

The Trump administration’s mixed signals

On Sunday, Trump’s U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley told CNN, “We don’t see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there.”

But Tillerson on Sunday told ABC News’ "“This Week” that Washington’s Syria policy was “unchanged” and defeating the Islamic State was the administration’s No. 1 priority, with removing Assad through a political transition possible only after that.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has called on the G-7 — some the world’s top economic powers — to draw up sanctions to target Russia for its support of Assad. Today there appeared no consensus, however, on that threat, with Italy’s foreign minister saying it did not support more sanctions and feared boxing Russia into a corner.

PHOTO: The Kremlin is seen behind the Moskva River in Moscow, April 7, 2017. The Russian military says it will help Syria beef up its air defenses after the U.S. strike on a Syrian air base. Ivan Sekretarev/AP Photo
The Kremlin is seen behind the Moskva River in Moscow, April 7, 2017. The Russian military says it will help Syria beef up its air defenses after the U.S. strike on a Syrian air base.

Russia unmoved by world reaction

Russia has only dug in with its defense of Assad and its claim that his forces were not behind the chemical attack. Even as Tillerson was landing in Moscow, Putin alleged that Russia had evidence showing the chemical attacks were planned by militants in Syria to frame the Assad government and provoke fresh U.S. strikes. At a news conference Putin compared the accusations against Assad to the false claims the U.S. made in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War.

The Kremlin has underscored its displeasure by hinting that Putin will shun Tillerson, with Putin’s spokesman today telling reporters he couldn’t confirm a meeting. However, one is still expected, with the Russian business outlet RBC quoting government sources saying it will take place.

That perhaps reflects the Kremlin attitude more broadly. Despite the stormy rhetoric, according to government sources quoted in the Russian media and analysts speaking to ABC News, the Kremlin is less angry than confused by the Trump administration’s attitude on Syria. The main thing, they said, is that Russia hopes to obtain from Tillerson’s visit a clear understanding of what the United States wants in Syria.

“Most of all, Russia expects that Tillerson will explain what is happening in America’s foreign policy,” said Sergey Markov, a pro-Kremlin analyst based in Moscow. “Because we don’t understand what is happening at all. Trump doesn’t have a clear, precise policy on Syria.”

The Kremlin might want to ‘let it slide’

In Moscow, Markov and a number of other analysts said, the U.S. strikes were viewed most likely as a prop to boost Trump’s slumped support at home, not to change things in Syria. But they said they do not understand what the administration’s attitude toward Assad was or how actively the United States now plans to be involved in Syria.

“If it’s a one-off, then the Kremlin can let it slide,” said Pavel Felgengauer, a veteran defense analyst in Moscow, referring to the U.S. strikes.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a long statement before Tillerson’s arrival, saying it hoped for “constructive cooperation, not confrontation,” during his visit.

There was no sign the Kremlin was preparing to abandon Assad — having spent billions of rubles and invested major military and political capital to keep him in power — just as his position is the strongest in years. Russia has been working to establish a peace process on its own terms, one that would largely be a fig leaf for a regime victory, with Moscow-backed opposition figures developing a new constitution and a proposed transitional government that apparently would include Assad.

Few Russian observers believe the Kremlin considers Assad an ideal partner, with some suggesting Russia wants the regime to participate more actively in negotiations. But, analysts said, Russia believes there is no alternative for obtaining its goals.

“If Bashar were not there, what would Russia do?” asked Aleksei Malashenko, a prominent expert on Russian Middle East policy. “The problem is Russia doesn’t have a successor for Bashar.”