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Apr 12, 2017 | 19:50 GMT

Russia: U.S. Secretary of State Holds Tense Talks With Top Kremlin Officials

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held marathon meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on April 12. The length of the meetings and the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin granted Tillerson an audience is notable in and of itself, given the preceding back and forth between the White House and the Kremlin on whether Tillerson would in fact meet the Russian head of state.
 
In their comments following the meeting, both Lavrov and Tillerson said that substantive progress had been made in the U.S.-Russia dialogue. Following the April 4 attack on a Syrian airbase in response to a Syrian chemical weapons attack, Russia suspended a critical deconfliction agreement with the United States, designed to prevent collisions on the battlefield. Going into today's talks, Russia wielded the power of being able to act as a spoiler in Syria at a time when the United States is trying to focus on the fight against the Islamic State, and on the impending offensive against the militant bastion of Raqqa. Lavrov said in the post-meeting press conference that he and Tillerson discussed putting the deconfliction agreement "back on track." Meanwhile, the United States has backed off its allegations that Russia had advance warning — and covered up its knowledge — of a Syrian plan to launch a chemical weapons attack. Washington is also toning down threats of expanded sanctions on Russia.
 
Ultimately, the United States still wants to avoid expanding the scope of its mission in Syria, though Russia made clear ahead of the meeting with Tillerson that events on the ground could make that difficult. Putin said April 11 that he had knowledge that another chemical weapons attack is being planned in the southern suburbs of Damascus, maintaining that the chemical attacks are rebel actions meant to undermine the legitimacy of the Syrian government. 
 
The United States will not tolerate certain activities by the Russia-backed Syrian government, including the use of nerve agents against civilians. (Notably, the Syrian government has regularly carried out attacks with chemicals that don't target the central nervous system, but the United States is not including those attacks in the current definition of its "red line".) Ultimately, the United States wants a final settlement of the Syrian civil war, and that means deciding whether to tolerate Bashar al-Assad as a leader or not.

The two countries are at least making the crucial first step of clarifying their priorities. For now, it seems that a temporary de-escalation in Syria has been agreed upon, which will enable the United States to better manage its risks on the battlefield.

Russia will meanwhile attempt to use this temporary and partial agreement to further the dialogue with the United States on other issues, including NATO, the situation in Ukraine, and sanctions. On the latter, Tillerson said that sanctions could even be added if evidence emerges of Russian interference in the U.S. election. It is still uncertain whether the United States would even entertain the idea of broader negotiations with Russia. There is certainly enough playing out on the global stage to continue to drive tensions between the two sides, but this conciliatory meeting provided the opportunity for much-needed de-escalation, even if such a respite is temporary in nature.

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