America’s top diplomat will warn Russia to abandon its support for Syria’s President Bashar Assad, insisting there is no future for his regime following the latest chemical weapons attack on his own people.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Moscow for talks after a G7 foreign ministers’ meeting in Italy called on Russia to promote a “real and genuine” political process in Syria and to use its influence to end the country’s bloody six-year civil war.
However Russian President Vladimir Putin showed little inclination to respond to the US initiative, saying he was well aware of planned “provocations” to blame Syria’s government for using chemical weapons.
“It reminds me of the events in 2003 when US envoys to the Security Council were demonstrating what they said were chemical weapons found in Iraq,” he told reporters. “We have seen it all already.”
Following the G7 gathering in the Tuscan city of Lucca, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson insisted there was now an opportunity for Mr Putin to “reset” relations with the West and to join the US-led coalition against Islamic State.
“They have a big strategic choice: Do they want to stick with this guy who is poisoning his own people and poisoning the reputation of Russia, or do they want to be part of the solution?” he told Sky News.
“Of course, everybody understands that Russia has political and strategic interests in Syria. All that can be respected. But at the same time, Russia needs an exit from this disaster in Syria.”
There was, however, no agreement among the ministers on a call by Mr Johnson for targeted sanctions against senior Russian and Syrian military figures implicated in last week’s chemical weapons attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun.
Italian foreign minister Angelino Alfano told the closing news conference: “We must have a dialogue with Russia and we must not push Russia into a corner.
“There is no consensus on additional new sanctions as an efficient instrument to deliver the goal we are aiming for.”
Mr Johnson insisted the option of sanctions remained on the table and said there would now be an investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
“After that, if of course we can find people, whether they are Syrians or whether they are Russians associated with the Syrian military operation, it is in my view wholly appropriate that they should face economic sanctions or sanctions of some other kind,” he said.
“That is something that had wide acceptance around the table last night, but you have got to do things in the proper legal way.”
Mr Tillerson, who is due to meet with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, said it was clear that the days of the Assad regime were numbered and that Moscow needed to decide whose side it was on.
“It is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end. But the question of how that ends and the transition itself could be very important in our view to the durability, the stability inside of a unified Syria,” he said.
“Russia has really aligned itself with the Assad regime, the Iranians and Hezbollah. Is that a long-term alliance that serves Russia’s interest, or would Russia prefer to realign with other Western countries and Middle East countries who are seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis?
“We want to create a future for Syria that is stable and secure. Russia can be a part of that future.”
The meeting in Lucca was hastily widened on Monday to bring in diplomats from key regional powers including Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
The US officials raised the stakes ahead of Mr Tillerson’s visit to Moscow with the disclosure that the administration had reached the preliminary conclusion that Russia knew in advance of the chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun, which left at least 80 dead.
The White House, meanwhile, made clear that it could mount further strikes against the regime if there was any fresh use of chemical weapons, despite a threat of retaliation from Russia and Iran.