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Tillerson-Lavrov Talks Will Mark a Decisive Moment in US-Russia Relations

The US attack on a Syrian government airbase last week dangerously ratcheted up tension between the US and Russia. This week’s planned meeting between Rex Tillerson and Sergey Lavrov will be crucial to reducing the risk of conflict.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is scheduled to arrive in Moscow on 11 April, after a brief visit to Italy to meet with counterparts from the G7. While in Russia, Tillerson plans to meet with the Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. If their talks go well, he could also meet President Putin.

This long-planned visit was to have been an exploration of possibilities and agendas for a proposed Trump-Putin summit around mid-year, possibly in Helsinki. But the climate for the talks has been disrupted by last week’s dramatic events in Syria.

Lavrov and Tillerson—if they meet—now face the difficult task of trying to wind back the rapidly growing spiral of mistrust, hostility and risk of war between these major nuclear powers. The gravity of the present situation arises from the US cruise missile attack on a Syrian government air base on 7 April, following President Trump’s conclusion that the Syrian Airforce had bombed the town of Idlib with poison gas weapons, causing many deaths including of children. The Russian government laid its credibility on the line, claiming that the alleged Syrian air attack on Idlib using poison gas bombs had not taken place and that the White Helmets, a humanitarian organisation of medical volunteers that operates in Al Nusra-held areas of Syria, had staged a false propaganda event needing urgent examination on the ground by qualified experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Trump gave the order for a limited, controlled military strike. He directed that Russia be given an hour’s notice under the US-Russian deconfliction agreement, thereby minimising casualties from the cruise-missile assault on the air base to a reported five Syrian deaths and zero Russian casualties.

There is widespread pride and satisfaction in Washington across both political parties with the results of this US military strike. The general view is that the United States has appropriately reasserted its military might in Syria, given warning of more to come if Syria does not behave and shown that it is back in the game.

There is now a battle going on for the president’s ear in Washington between those who argue that the US has made its point and should rest on this and those who—armed by a continuing flow of White Helmets-sourced information about the effects on civilians of Syrian government conventional bombing—argue that it is time to use decisive American military power to topple the Assad regime. Allies like Australia are being encouraged to support the latter argument.

In Moscow, there is deep and burning anger across the government, particularly in the ministry of defence. They see the Americans’ early warning to Russia of their imminent attack on the Syrian air base as a gross betrayal of trust that left Russia, Syria’s main military protector, in a humiliating and ambiguous position. From Moscow’s perspective, the deconfliction agreement hot line was about avoiding dangerous accidental air clashes, not implicating Russia in American attacks on the Syrian government. As a result, Russia has abruptly cancelled the deconfliction agreement.

This escalates the risk of war: any future American attack on Syrian military facilities now risks killing Russians or destroying Russian military assets.  The risk of Russian counterattack on American military aircraft or ships in the area has thus dramatically increased.

Moreover, Moscow is angry that its case, made at the United Nations and in Moscow over 5-6 April, that the alleged Syrian Air Force poison gas attack on Idlib was rebel propaganda needing examination by international experts, was ignored in the West. It is felt that Russia was treated with contempt for opposing proposed UN Security Council resolutions that took as their starting point the allegations of the Syrian poison gas attack at Idlib.

According to some well-placed observers, there was “zero US intelligence linking Assad to the alleged chemical attack in Idlib” and Trump’s decision to attack the Syrian air base was taken entirely on the basis of the White Helmets’ audiovisual material. In other words, the White Helmets’ version was believed in Washington and the Russian government’s disbelieved. The Russian foreign ministry’s ‘Statement on US military action in Syria on April 7, 2017’ bluntly accused the US government of bad faith.

Not only do Tillerson and Lavrov need to try to find common ground amid the damage to mutual trust caused by last week’s events, they will then each need to persuade their own governments of the merits of whatever agreement they achieve. The present situation is far graver than most Australians realise.

Tony Kevin is Emeritus Fellow at the Australian National University and was Australia’s ambassador to Poland (1991-94) and to Cambodia (1994-97). He is the author of the recently published, ‘Return to Moscow’.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.

Published April 10, 2017