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11 Apr, 2017 07:29

Tillerson visits Moscow as tensions spike after US strike on Syria base

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has arrived in Moscow on Tuesday to discuss Syria with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. The visit comes as recent US strikes on a Syrian base were followed by hints of sanctioning Russia for supporting Assad.

While in Moscow, Tillerson is expected to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday, with the Syrian crisis being the key issue on the agenda. This is the former oil executive’s first visit to Russia as Secretary of State.

Russia expects a constructive dialogue free of confrontational rhetoric, the Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday ahead of the meeting. Moscow is willing to discuss all matters of mutual concern raised by Tillerson and is ready “for any course of events,” the ministry noted. It would, however, prefer “to work on de-escalating the international tensions, not heightening them,” it said, adding, “We do hope that the American side wants the same.”

It is unclear so far whether Tillerson will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin. The US Embassy told RIA Novosti news agency that the meeting with Lavrov is the only one that has been officially confirmed, while Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said on Monday that a meeting has not been scheduled.

Later in the day, Peskov once again refused to confirm if a meeting might take place. “I still can’t confirm that,” he was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying.

According to previous reports, Tillerson’s visit was initially set up to find common ground and pave the way for rapprochement between Russia and the US. Hopes waned, however, after the US military conducted a massive missile strike on the Shayrat Airbase in Homs Province, Syria.

Washington claimed it is where Syrian jets allegedly carrying chemical weapons munitions took off to launch an assault on a rebel-held town in Idlib Province on April 4. Damascus denied the allegations. Moscow and Beijing have described the US attack as an act of aggression against a sovereign state.

The incident was followed by US claims that Russia bears part of the responsibility for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s policies. In addition, the Pentagon has launched an investigation into Russia’s alleged involvement in the Idlib attack, according to CNN.

Earlier this week, media reports emerged saying Tillerson will present a memorandum of G7 members demanding that Russia abandon its support for Assad’s government in return for restoring Moscow’s membership in the group.

Other G7 countries have advocated imposing more sanctions on Russia over its support for the Syrian government. On Monday, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson cancelled a scheduled visit to Russia, urging Western nations to draw up “very punitive sanctions” and demand that Russia stop backing Assad, and withdraw its troops from the war-ravaged country.

In the meantime, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said later on Tuesdy that “the question of added sanctions had barely been mentioned in the [G7] meetings,” as cited by Reuters. However, he told reporters that “the G7 will tell Russia very clearly that this hypocrisy has to stop. It needs to genuinely and sincerely engage with the political process to get ourselves out of this situation we found ourselves in.”

READ MORE: Canada jumps on bandwagon of countries mulling tougher Russia sanctions

Both sides, however, voiced cautious optimism about the meeting. “I’m hopeful that we can have constructive talks with the Russian government, with Foreign Minister Lavrov and have Russia be supportive of a process that will lead to a stable Syria,” Tillerson told ABC’s The Week on Sunday.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said it does not expect much from the meeting, but having the opportunity to discuss pressing international issues is a positive step. “We’ll listen to the US Secretary of State once he’s here, and ask our questions. I believe, we should understand processes going on in Washington, but on the other hand, we must absolutely make it clear that such [missile strikes] are unacceptable for us,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said last week.