WASHINGTON — When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson travels to Moscow on Tuesday, he will search for common ground with Russia on ending Syria’s long civil war — and the brutal reign of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Both goals will be extraordinarily tough to achieve: President Vladimir Putin has been Assad’s strongest ally, and Russia’s military has provided him a major boost against rebels since 2015.
Yet Putin may be more open to a deal after last week’s U.S. missile strike on a Syrian air base in response to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons on a rebel-held village that killed dozens of civilians, including children, analysts say. The April 4 attack drew global condemnation, and the Trump administration suggested Russia was complicit in the attack.
“Putin lost a lot of face in Syria with Assad” because the chemical weapons’ attack provoked U.S. retaliation and Russia was supposed to be a bulwark against foreign military intervention, said Michael Pregent, a former U.S. intelligence officer who served in Iraq.
The Moscow meeting “creates an opportunity to exploit the schism between Putin and Assad” and get an agreement to replace the Syrian strongman, said Pregent, now with the Hudson Institute think tank.
Russia’s goal from the start of the Syria conflict has been to protect its key Middle East ally and Russia’s naval base in Tartus, its only military installation in the Mediterranean and outside of Europe. However, the Kremlin noted after the chemical attack that it’s longtime support for Assad is not “unconditional.”
Last week, Jordan’s King Abdullah II suggested in an interview with The Washington Post before meeting President Trump at the White House that the U.S. should offer Putin a “horse trade” involving the Ukrainian province of Crimea that Russia seized and Russia’s support for Assad. Should the U.S. “come to an understanding (with Russia) on Crimea, I think you will see much more (Russian) flexibility on Syria,” Abdullah said Thursday.
The Russian economy has been badly damaged by U.S. and European sanctions imposed to punish it for seizing Crimea and supporting separatists waging war against government forces in eastern Ukraine. During his campaign for president, Trump raised the possibility of accepting Crimea as Russian territory and lifting the U.S. sanctions imposed by President Barack Obama.
An agreement on the eventual removal of Assad also could pave the way for joint U.S.-Russian military action to defeat the Islamic State, or ISIS, one of the many groups opposed to Assad. A U.S.-led air campaign is focused on destroying the militant group, which got its start fighting in Syria. Russian planes also have targeted ISIS, but not as often as the many other Assad opposition groups that Russia has attacked.
Assad’s ouster also has its dangers, as the U.S. military learned when it invaded Iraq in 2003 and overthrew strongman Saddam Hussein. Iraq fell into chaos because of a power vacuum that led to fighting among ethnic and religious rivals, and some of that conflict continues today. In addition, the turmoil contributed to the Islamic State’s expansion into Iraq.
Trump did not share Obama’s view that Assad must go because of repeated atrocities until last week’s chemical attack. Now it appears to be a goal after the top U.S. priority: defeating ISIS.
“As you reduce ISIS’ strength, as you de-escalate the conflict in Syria, the political environment to remove (Assad) becomes stronger and stronger,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Monday.
Tillerson’s trip to Moscow, where he will meet with his Russian counterpart and possibly Putin, will “be an awkward visit, but a very revealing visit,” said Frederic Hof, director of Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and a former State Department Syria expert.