Monday, 10 April 2017

US will stand up to aggressors, says Rex Tillerson before G7 talks

US secretary of state visits Italian war memorial before meeting with foreign ministers to discuss Syria and Russia
Rex Tillerson talks to reporters at a war memorial in Italy. Photograph: Max Rossi/Reuters

The US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, used a visit to an Italian war memorial on Monday to declare that the US would stand up to aggressors who harm civilians, as preparations were under way in nearby Lucca for a meeting of G7 foreign ministers that was expected to be dominated by the suspected chemical attack in Syria.

Tillerson travelled to Sant’Anna di Stazzema, the Tuscan village where the Nazis massacred more than 500 civilians, and alluded to last week’s retaliatory missile strike on Syria as he laid a wreath.

“We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” he said in short statement. “This place will serve as an inspiration to us all.”

Amid increased tensions between the west and Russia over Syria, Tillerson struck a hardline note over the weekend, telling CBS that the Russians had “failed in their commitment to the international community” by not preventing the Syrian regime from carrying out the attack on a rebel-held town in Idlib province.

He said there was no evidence to suggest Russia was involved in the attack, but argued that it had agreed to “be the guarantor of the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles” and that “the result of their failure has led to the killing of more children and innocents” .

The meeting in the Italian city of Lucca brings together foreign ministers from the US and Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan. Tillerson met his UK counterpart, Boris Johnson, for bilateral talks ahead of the full G7 meeting.

It had been expected that ministers would focus on hotspots such as Libya, Iran and Ukraine, but top of the agenda now is the attack on Khan Sheikhun, which killed at least 87 people, and the US cruise missiles fired at a Syrian airbase in retaliation.

Tillerson is due to travel to Moscow on Tuesday and has pledged to take a “clear and coordinated message” to his scheduled talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, said at the weekend that she saw regime change in Syria as one of the Trump administration’s priorities in the country. “There’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime,” Haley told CNN.

The UK has sought to step back from talk of more military action over Syria, stressing Theresa May is intent on seeking a long-term political settlement while also warning that Russia could face new sanctions over its support for the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

May, who is on a walking holiday in Wales, spoke on the phone to the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, on Sunday, her spokesman said, and both backed the US missile strike.

“They discussed the importance of Russia using its influence to bring about a political settlement in Syria, and to work with the rest of the international community to ensure the shocking events of the last week are never repeated,” May’s spokesman said.

The UK’s priority was political talks, the spokesman said. “What we’re focusing on is building international support for a political solution to end the conflict and bring lasting peace and stability to Syria.”

May’s spokesman said part of the G7 discussions would be how to pressure Russia over its support for Assad. Asked about possible new sanctions, the spokesman said: “Without getting into details, what we’re saying is that we’re in discussions with our key partners on how we can bring further pressure to bear on the regime and those who are backing it, which includes the Russians.”

The US missile strike marked the first time Washington has intervened directly against the Assad regime, which is fighting a civil war with the backing of Russia and Iran.

The missile strike drew sharp criticism from Iran and North Korea and put the Trump administration on a diplomatic collision course with Moscow.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a staunch supporter of Assad, described the US strike as a “strategic mistake” that played into the hands of Islamic State. “This is the last in a series of strategic errors … which will definitely have a backlash against their own interests,” Khamenei, who has the final say in all state matters in Iran, told senior commanders of the Iranian armed forces on Sunday.

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, said at a press conference in Tehran on Monday that some reforms were needed in Syria, but made clear Iran believed that could only be achieved through elections.

“Iran believed and continues to do so that terrorists gathered from all across the region and beyond in Syria must be eradicated,” Rouhani said. “However, we also believe that certain reforms are necessary to take place in Syria. We recommend elections, polls and democracy in Syria as everywhere else in the world.”

Italy has arranged a meeting on Tuesday between the G7 ministers and their counterparts from Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar. Italian media said the aim was “to avert a dangerous military escalation”.


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