No place for Assad in Syria’s future, says US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
President Bashar al-Assad should not be part of Syria’s future, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Tuesday, as G7 allies rejected a call for new sanctions on Damascus and its key ally Moscow.
Washington has stepped up the pressure on Russia to rein in Assad after a suspected chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held Syrian town that killed at least 87 civilians and triggered retaliatory US missile strikes on a Syrian air base.
As G7 foreign ministers urged a diplomatic push to end the six-year conflict and create a lasting peace for a unified Syria, Tillerson said: “Our hope is Bashar al-Assad will not be part of that future.”
With a growing gulf between the US and Assad’s main ally Russia, the G7 ministers threw their support behind Tillerson as he headed for vital talks on the Syrian conflict in Moscow.
“To be clear, our military action was a direct response to the Assad regime’s barbarism,” Tillerson said at the G7 meeting in Italy.
“The United States’ priority in Syria and Iraq remains the defeat of ISIS,” he added, referring to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group.
Moscow said it was hoping to avoid confrontation and engage in “constructive cooperation” with Washington, as Tillerson headed to the Russian capital on the first visit by a senior member of President Donald Trump’s administration.
The G7 ministers failed to agree on whether fresh sanctions should be imposed on Damascus and Moscow.
“At the moment there is no consensus on new sanctions as an effective instrument,” Italy’s Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said, after his British counterpart Boris Johnson had raised the issue.
But after talks in the Tuscan city German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said: “All the G7 states want to avoid a military escalation and want a political solution without a new spiral of violence.
“We want to bring Russia around to supporting the political process for a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict.”
The German diplomat said Tillerson had “all our support” for his talks in Moscow, where he will meet his counterpart Sergei Lavrov although the Kremlin has not said if there will be a meeting with President Vladimir Putin.
The US has warned Damascus that further use of chemical weapons could bring fresh retaliation.
US warships in the Mediterranean on Friday fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat air base near Homs, destroying an airfield from which Washington believes Assad’s jets launched the deadly chemical attack.
The strike was the first time Washington had intervened directly against the regime of Assad, who is fighting a six-year civil war with the backing of Russia and Iran.
While Moscow has suggested that civilians were poisoned by rebel weapons, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said there was no doubt the Syrian “regime has chemical weapons, and it needs to be prevented from using them again”.
The G7 groups Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the US.
On Monday, Britain’s Johnson had described Assad as “toxic” and said it was “time for Vladimir Putin to face the truth about the tyrant he is propping up”.
“The United States will not passively stand by while Assad murders innocent people with chemical weapons, which are prohibited by international law and which were declared destroyed,” Pentagon chief James Mattis said Monday.
“The Syrian government would be ill-advised ever again to use chemical weapons.”
The warning came as White House spokesman Sean Spicer appeared to lower the threshold for new US action against Assad to include barrel bombs, a crude yet hugely destructive weapon of choice for the Syrian leader.
“If you gas a baby or drop a barrel bomb onto innocent people, you will see a response from” Trump, Spicer said.
But US officials later appeared to go back on Spicer’s remarks.
“Nothing has changed in our posture,” a senior administration official said.
Trump on Monday discussed Syria in separate telephone calls with British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Both May and Merkel “expressed support for the action of the United States and agreed with President Trump on the importance of holding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accountable,” the White House said.
Several rounds of UN-backed peace talks have failed to end the Syrian conflict, which has killed more than 320,000 people since March 2011.