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Rex Tillerson Stands Firm On Syria As He Prepares To Meet With Russians


So much has changed about the Trump administration in just a few days, or at least something changed about how the administration talks.


This administration has talked a lot about putting America first and has had a lot of nice things to say about Russia. Suddenly, it's the administration that fired missiles at Russia's ally, Syria.

INSKEEP: Rex Tillerson was the secretary of state who didn't show up for the publication of his department's annual report on human rights. Now he speaks starkly of human rights.


REX TILLERSON: We dedicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.

INSKEEP: That was Tillerson yesterday in Italy. Today, Tillerson begins a visit to Moscow. And we have reached Alexander Vershbow, who was ambassador to Russia under President George W. Bush. He joins us via Skype. Ambassador, welcome to the program.


INSKEEP: What do you make of the administration's shift?

VERSHBOW: Well, the events - and it often happens to someone's foreign policy - events intrude on what you might want to do. This visit was, I think, originally meant to kick off a high level of dialogue leading to the first summit meeting between the president and President Putin. But now Syria has risen to the top of the agenda because of the horrific use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime last week.

And so a very different kind of conversation's going to be taking place with Lavrov. And President Putin has decided he's not even going to see Tillerson because the Russians are quite upset about what the U.S. has done.

INSKEEP: Lavrov, of course, that's the Russian foreign minister. And it sounds like Russia still wants to be discussing this chemical weapons attack. Of course, for the United States, the evidence was clear, they said. And they went ahead and responded to the chemical weapons attack. But Russia says it's hoping for an international investigation of that chemical weapons attack. Would that be in the U.S.' interest?

VERSHBOW: Well, I think we shouldn't oppose an impartial investigation. And it is, unfortunately, the case that the Russians are denying that their clients were the ones who used the chemical weapons. They claim that there's no infrastructure for chemical weapons at the base that the U.S. struck. I think the U.S. is quite confident in its intelligence that it was the Syrian regime that either didn't dispose of all the weapons that it had three years ago or it's been producing new ones.

So they're going to have a fairly tough conversation where the Russians are still standing by their client, rather than reining them in and trying to steer things towards ending this Syrian civil war.

INSKEEP: So let me ask, ambassador, if the conversation is really going to be that tough. And here's why I ask that. The United States certainly sent a flashy message by firing a bunch of missiles at a Syrian airfield. But that airfield is still being used to target rebels and civilians. The United States is still not, so far as we know, actively trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader, although they're talking differently about him in recent days.

Is it possible to say the U.S. still is not really conflicting with Russian interests all that much in Syria?

VERSHBOW: Yes, I would tend to agree with that. I mean, not so much because of the degree of destruction at the airbase but the Russians, I think, have been assured by statements that this was not meant to signal the start of an open-ended campaign against the Assad regime. This was meant to punish the regime for breaching the international norm regarding the use of chemical weapons. But unless Assad continues to use those chemical weapons, this could end up being a one-shot deal.

The focus of the United States remains, as has been said by many officials, fighting ISIS. And of course, we don't want to get into conflict with Russia or the regime, which have pretty sophisticated air defenses, which could interfere with our operations against Raqqa, which are the key focal point right now...

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah.

VERSHBOW: ...Of the counter-ISIS campaign.

INSKEEP: Exactly. One other thing very quickly in a few seconds. How much has President Putin enjoyed, if that's the word, this moment of being suspected of interfering in the U.S. election?

VERSHBOW: Well, you know, of course, they deny that they did it. But I think they must be very satisfied that they've managed to roil the waters quite significantly in American politics and now they're trying to do the same thing in France and in Germany, which have big elections coming up. So I think from a domestic political point of view, this makes President Putin look stronger.

And seeing the west in disarray and confusion even in Washington is something that they probably are quite happy about.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, thanks very much for taking the time, really appreciate it.

VERSHBOW: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: Alexander Vershbow was U.S. ambassador to Russia and is now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.