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Syria Casts Long Shadow Across Rex Tillerson's Big Trip To Italy And Russia

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson waits for the start of a meeting last month at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Tillerson is scheduled to travel to Russia on Tuesday, in what promises to be a difficult round of talks after the U.S. missile strike in Syria last week.

Prompted by a chemical weapons attack, the U.S. loosed dozens of Tomahawk missiles last week on an air base operated by Syrian President Bashar Assad, the embattled ally of Russia. In the hours and days since the strike, Russian leaders have made no secret of their displeasure with the American intervention.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has dismissed these protests from Russia, which helped broker a 2013 deal to destroy Assad's chemical weapons — as, at best, "simply not plausible." And at worst?

"Regardless of whether Russia was complicit here or whether they were simply incompetent or whether they got outwitted by the Bashar al-Assad regime," Tillerson told CBS' Face the Nation on Sunday, "you would have to ask the Russians that question."

For better or worse, Tillerson will have the opportunity to ask the Russians that question personally when he makes his first visit to Moscow as secretary of state Tuesday.

But that difficult conversation will have to wait a day.

First, Tillerson stopped in Italy to discuss the violence in Syria with a much friendlier audience: other G-7 foreign ministers. That two-day summit, which opened Monday in Lucca, brings together diplomats from the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan — all of whom have expressed uniform support for last week's missile strike.

While the conflict in Syria had always been on the docket for the G-7 talks, which serve as a warm-up of sorts for a bigger summit in late May, original plans had also included conversations about other global flashpoints such as Iraq, Libya and Ukraine. It's unclear how much that agenda has narrowed — but it is quite clear the missile strike is already casting its shadow across the meeting.

Even before G-7 talks kicked off, Tillerson didn't miss the opportunity to deliver a pointed reference to the suspected Syrian chemical attack.

"We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world," Tillerson said during a visit to a World War II memorial to Italian civilian victims of the Nazis.

Diplomats at this week's G-7 meetings are eager to hear the details behind that "rededication." So far, the messages out of the White House have been mixed, as Reuters notes: Tillerson said this weekend "that the defeat of Islamic State remained the U.S. priority, while U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said 'regime change' in Syria was also a priority for Trump."

Yet while G-7 countries are seeking clarity, Russia — a former member of the group — has been perfectly clear about its own immediate reaction to recent events in Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called the U.S. missile strike "an act of aggression against a sovereign state delivered in violation of international law under a far-fetched pretext." And Russia threatened to cut off a hotline between the Pentagon and the Kremlin designed to prevent unintentional violence between the two countries in Syria.

"The rhetorical cease-fire is officially over," NPR's Lucian Kim reports. "Their response was really fast. They had a statement up at 9 a.m. [last Friday] in five different languages. They never act that fast. They're really, really, really upset."

In some ways, the feeling is mutual. Many U.S. lawmakers haven't accepted the rationale behind Russian intervention in Syria, and they are hopeful the U.S. can help persuade Russia to change its policy there.

"Russia has said all along that their intervention in Syria is really only to oppose terrorism, but it's blindingly clear ... what they are doing is facilitating an Iranian beachhead into Syria and a sustained presence there, and making possible the survival of one of the worst regimes in modern human history," Sen. Chris Coons tells NPR's Michele Kelemen.

Despite the friction ahead of the Moscow meeting, Tillerson himself has long-standing connections to Russia, having led Exxon Mobil's operations there before he was named CEO. Putin even awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship. The relationship even attracted wary senators' attention in Tillerson's confirmation hearing earlier this year.

Ties between Russia and some members of Trump's campaign team have been the subject of much scrutiny in recent weeks. Congress and the FBI are still investigating alleged Russian interference in last year's presidential election, a scandal that continues to dog the fledgling administration.

Still, whatever friendly relations Tillerson and Russian officials might have enjoyed are showing some strain.

Tillerson is set to meet with his counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — but not with Putin. Reuters reports that Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, says that "right now there is no meeting with Tillerson in the president's diary."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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