U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson heads to Moscow on April 12, just days after the United States launched missile strikes on a Syrian airbase in response to a Syrian chemical weapons attack that killed civilians.
Officials say the top U.S. diplomat will urge Russia to rethink its continued support for the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
Britain’s foreign minister, Boris Johnson, said on Saturday he had canceled a visit to Moscow that was scheduled for April 10. “Developments in Syria have changed the situation fundamentally,” said Johnson in a statement.
Secretary of State Tillerson is scheduled to travel to Moscow on Wednesday, after he attends the G7 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Italy from April 9 to 11.
The State Department did not respond to VOA’s inquiry on whether Tillerson’s Moscow trip has been changed or canceled since the U.S. military strikes. But as of Sunday, a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin has been removed from Tillerson's Moscow schedule.
Analysts say Washington needs the diplomatic follow-up, though, after the military action.
The top U.S. diplomat, known as a man of few words, had harsh comments for Russia, which Washington blamed for failing to rein in its ally, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
“Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent,” said Tillerson on Thursday night. He was referring to the Kremlin’s failure to prevent the Assad government from allegedly conducting a poison gas attack that killed scores of people in rebel-held Idlib province.
In 2013, the Syrian government agreed to surrender its chemical weapons under the supervision of the Russia government. Prior to the recent gas attack, Tillerson said Assad's future would be decided by the Syrian people. After the attack, he took aim at Assad’s government and Russia's support for him.
Experts said the U.S. military strike could complicate Tillerson’s diplomatic mission to Moscow, and that an escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Russia over the future of Assad also is possible.
“For sure this means further immediate bumps in the bilateral relationship,” former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst told VOA.
He said despite the fact that the missile strikes were quite limited and Washington had warned Moscow ahead of time so that Russian soldiers would not be in danger, Moscow’s reaction was rather strong.
Herbst, now director of the Atlantic Council's Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, said Russia’s decision to suspend the de-confliction mechanism, which is intended to avoid accidents, was not well considered.
“While de-confliction serves the interest of both U.S. and Russian, it is more important to Moscow” because U.S. conventional forces are far superior and “Russian forces are more at risk in case of an incident,” said Herbst.
“The strikes undoubtedly change the tone of the conversation, given the de-confliction protocols, between Russia and the U.S. have been suspended in Syria,” Michael Kofman from Center for Naval Analyses told VOA.
Professor Doga Ulas Eralp of American University in Washington told VOA on Friday that Tillerson “now has to scramble to broker a deal” that would allow a sustainable coordination mechanism between the two countries “if the U.S. is determined to escalate its military engagement in Syria.”
Middle East Institute scholar Daniel Serwer told VOA the military strikes “shoot the Syria agenda item to the top.” The key question is whether Tillerson can get something going with the Russians on a political solution in Syria,” he added.
Former U.S. officials say the Syrian chemical attack is a major challenge to the nascent relationship between the Trump administration and the Kremlin.
“It is vital that the U.S. corrects course and that the current administration moves quickly from a set of alarming and ignorant comments to having a real policy and strategy for managing and mitigating Putin's negative impacts on world peace and security,” said former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Daniel Baer.
Alexei Arbatov, director of the Center of International Security at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow, told VOA’s Russian service that while the U.S. missile strike in Syria complicates U.S.-Russian relations, “the reaction of the Russian Foreign Ministry thus far has been quite restrained, and it is not rejecting the possibility of agreements and cooperation with the United States.”
While Washington is willing to work with Moscow in areas of practical cooperation, the State Department said Secretary Tillerson will make it clear the U.S. is committed to holding Russia accountable when international norms are violated.