Rex Tillerson vows to defend ‘innocents’ following Syria attack

Italy Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano (l.) welcomes U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as he arrives for a meeting of Foreign Affairs Ministers from the Group of Seven countries on April 10, 2017, in Lucca, Tuscany. (VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)

By Meg Wagner

Condemning ‘crimes against the innocents’

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Monday that the U.S. will stand up to anyone who commits crimes against innocent people — a declaration that came as he prepares for an international meeting of foreign ministers that is expected to focus on the deadly Syrian chemical attack.

Today, Tillerson is in Tuscany for a two-day meeting with ministers from the other Group of Seven (G7) nations: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.K. On Monday morning, before the conference kicked off, he visited the Tuscan village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema, where Nazis killed more than 500 civilians in 1944.

“We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” Tillerson said while visiting a memorial dedicated to the massacre’s victims.

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The G7 meeting comes just days after the U.S. unexpectedly bombed an airbase in Syria in retaliation for the deadly chemical attack Syrian president Bashar alAssad allegedly ordered against his own people. U.S. President Donald Trump and multiple European leaders blamed the Tuesday attack — which killed at least 86 Syrians, including 26 children, likely with sarin, a nerve agent forbidden under international law — on the regime.

Much of allies’ meeting will focus on policies concerning Syria and its ally Russia, which blamed the chemical attack on opponents of Syria’s government and condemned the U.S.’s retaliatory bombing as illegal. Tillerson is set to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on Wednesday after the G7 meeting concludes. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said he hopes the group can agree on a “clear and coordinated” message that Tillerson can pass along to Russia directly.

Mixed opinions on achieving peace

World leaders have long disagreed on how to handle the Syrian civil war, a six-year catastrophe that has pitted Assad’s regime, multiple anti-Assad rebel groups and the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group against each other. And it has has ravaged the nation: About 400,000 Syrians have died in the fighting, according to humanitarian groups, and nearly 5 million people have fled the nation as refugees, contributing to an international refugee crisis with many European nations struggling to cope with an influx of migrants.

Many G7 countries, including Germany and Canada, maintain that Assad must be taken out of power to achieve peace in Syria. Former U.S. President Barack Obama also took a similar line. Meanwhile, Russia has supported Assad, sending bombers and money to support the nation because its economy is in ruins.

Before the chemical attack, Trump’s administration had insisted that removing Assad was not a priority and said the U.S.’s work in Syria would focus on driving out ISIS. But the day after the gassing, Trump said he would reconsider that strategy.

“When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, little babies with a chemical gas … that crosses many lines beyond the red line. Many, many lines,” he said. “My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”

Many interpreted the Trump-ordered strike to be a reversal of his administration’s previous policy — but since then, White House officials have given mixed messages about future U.S.-Syrian relations.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, insisted on Saturday that the U.S. will push for the removal of Assad, saying that there are “multiple priorities” in the region (namely ousting Assad and defeating ISIS). But Tillerson said the Syrian people should be allowed to “decide the fate” of Assad, and he has insisted that fighting ISIS is still the U.S.’s top priority.

Tillerson prepping for tense talks

The chemical attack and the Trump administration’s response have increased tensions between the U.S. and Russia. On Friday, Russia announced it would suspend its military communications channel with the U.S., a line that allows the countries to directly notify each other about military movement and actions. It was last used before the U.S. stuck the Syrian base, to give Russian troops time to retreat.  In addition, on Monday Russia announced that Vladimir Putin will not meet with Tillerson when he visits Moscow on Wednesday.

But while the relationship may be more tense, it is not ended. The communications line is suspended, not cut, and Tillerson is still visiting with Kremlin officials. The U.K. pulled out of a meeting that had been scheduled for Monday following the gas attack — a move Russia criticized.  

Although the U.S.’s attack on Syria was met with outrage from Russia, it could give Tillerson a leg up in the talks, said Antony Blinken, a deputy to former Secretary of State John Kerry. “The demonstration of the administration’s willingness to use force has the potential to add some leverage to the diplomacy,” he told Reuters.

On top of Syria, Tillerson will likely also address Russia’s meddling in the U.S. presidential election and accusations that the Kremlin has violated an anti-missile treaty.