Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, opening an emergency meeting with key allies on the crisis in Syria and hours ahead of his arrival in Moscow, said Tuesday that Russia bore responsibility for chemical attacks by Syrian President Bashar Assad on civilians in that war-ravaged country.
Tillerson was speaking at the end of a two-day summit of foreign ministers from the Group of Seven nations in Lucca, Italy. They were joined Tuesday by representatives of several Arab countries who oppose Assad’s regime.
“Stockpiles and continued use demonstrate that Russia has failed in its responsibility to deliver on its 2013 commitment” to remove chemical weapons from Syria under a U.N.-brokered deal, Tillerson said.
“It is unclear whether Russia failed to take this obligation seriously or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement,” he said. “This distinction doesn’t much matter to the dead.”
Tillerson has previously said that Russia was either incompetent or complicit in Syria’s illegal use of chemical weapons, used in an attack last week that killed scores of people including many children.
Tillerson said the retaliatory U.S. missile strike that followed “was necessary as a matter of U.S. national security” and to prevent banned weapons from reaching the militant Islamic State organization that is operating in Syria.
He reiterated that the U.S. priority in the region remained defeating Islamic State, and he suggested that Assad could be replaced through negotiations that have so far produced no results. Top officials of the Trump administration have offered different and sometimes contradictory statements on Assad’s fate, leaving many observers guessing just how or whether the dictator would be removed.
“Many nations look to the Geneva process [negotiations] to resolve the Syrian conflict in a way that produces stability and gives the Syrian people the opportunity to determine their own political future,” Tillerson said. “And our hope is Bashar al-Assad will not be part of that future.”
At the conclusion of the G-7 summit, Tillerson departed for Moscow, where tense meetings are expected with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. It was not yet known whether President Vladimir Putin would receive Tillerson, as is customary in visits of U.S. secretaries of State to Moscow.
Tillerson and Putin are also friends, dating to the Texas oilman’s career as head of energy giant Exxon Mobil.
The administration is hoping to convince Russia that it can no longer support Assad, its main ally in the Middle East. Relations between Washington and Moscow, already strained, have become newly fraught over Syria.
(Mark Wilson / Getty Images) (Michael Reynolds / European Pressphoto Agency) Neil M. Gorsuch on Capitol Hill last month. Firefighters try to contain a blaze following a suicide attack on oil tankers in Maiduguri, Nigeria, on March 3. Residents of Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, protest a deadly chemical weapons attack on their town. (Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images)