By and David Filipov,

MOSCOW — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shifted his attention Tuesday to talks in Russia, seeking to urge Moscow to back away from the Syrian government and pave the way for the Syrian president to transition out of power.

Tillerson’s trip, following last week’s U.S. missile strikes on Syria, marks the most direct diplomatic effort by the Trump administration into Syria’s more than six-year conflict — where the government of President Bashar al-Assad is backed by Russia and Iran.

Meanwhile, rebel factions backed by the West and its partners have been largely driven back by withering attacks, including use of a suspected nerve agent on a rebel stronghold that left at least 70 people dead.

As Tillerson prepared to leave Italy — where he and “like-minded” allies in the G7 group were joined by diplomats from several Middle Eastern nations — Tillerson told reporters the United States cannot accept the use of chemical weapons in Syria. He also said the administration is aiming for a negotiated end to six years of conflict in Syria and seeking Russia’s help in ushering Assad out of office.

[The Russia-Iran bonds that Washington cannot seem to break]

“It is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end,” he said. “But the question of how that ends and the transition itself could be very important in our view to the durability, the stability inside of a unified Syria.”

“That’s why we are not presupposing how that occurs,” Tillerson added.

Tillerson also pointedly rebuked the Kremlin, reiterating sentiments he has evoked repeatedly in recent days.

He said Russia had failed to uphold a 2013 agreement, brokered with the United States, to locate and destroy all chemical weapons in Syria, claiming Moscow did not take the obligations seriously or was incompetent. The distinction, he added, “doesn’t much matter to the dead.”

“We want to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people,” he said, and issued an ultimatum: “Russia can be a part of that future and play an important role. Or Russia can maintain its alliance with this group, which we believe is not going to serve Russia’s interests longer term.”

Tillerson may have the chance to make those points directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

[U.S.-Russia rifts were already widening before missile strike]

After days of waffling and insisting Russian Vladimir Putin had no meeting planned with Tillerson, Russian Foreign Ministry sources told RBC television the two would meet Wednesday.

If Putin were to snub Tillerson, it would be the first time a U.S. secretary of state did not meet with the Russian president on a maiden trip to the country.

Tillerson’s visit is unfolding amid a sense of urgency. The suspected use of the banned nerve agent Sarin, dropped on a village last week in rebel-held territory, killed more than 70 civilians and led the United States to launch nearly 60 Tomahawk missiles targeting a Syrian air base used in the Syrian strike in the northern Idlib province. Residents in the town hit by chemical attack place the death toll at more than 80.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told CNN in Italy that U.S. allies in the G7 wanted to give Tillerson a “mandate” to deliver a message to the Kremlin about its support for Assad: “This is your choice. Stick with that guy. Stick with that tyrant, or work with us to find a better solution.”

The Russian foreign ministry laid out its list of expectations for talks that come at a moment when the U.S.-Russian relationship is “in its most difficult period since the Cold War,” the ministry said in a statement.

Moscow is “concerned about U.S. plans regarding North Korea in the context of a possible scenario of unilateral use of force,” the ministry said, mirroring the alarm expressed by senior Russian officials Monday about the possibility of a U.S. strike against Pyongyang.

The Russian side will also expect Washington to agree to “an impartial investigation into the Idlib chemical incident,” Moscow’s terminology for the chemical weapons attack the United States and its allies have blamed on Assad.

[Opinion: No one should feel good about Trump’s Syria strike]

Russia has maintained a Syrian government airstrike on Idlib hit a factory where Syrian rebels were manufacturing chemical weapons, and Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said after the U.S. missile strike that the Syrian government “has no chemical arms stockpiles” and said the strike was based on a “far-fetched notion.”

Moscow says that it fulfilled its part of a 2013 agreement mandating that Russia oversee the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal.

If Washington does nothing to improve relations, the foreign ministry warned Monday, “Moscow will react reciprocally.”

Russia last week suspended a deal that set up a hotline that allowed Russian and U.S.-led coalition air forces to avoid conflict as they conducted separate operations in the crowded airspace over Syria.

The suspension of that agreement does not mean Russian air defense will shoot down incoming missiles in the event of another U.S. strike, but it will not prevent Syria from defending itself, Viktor Ozerov, the head of the defense and security committee of the upper house of the Russian parliament, told the Interfax news agency.

But Russia would defend itself to ensure the safety of air bases and supply bases in Tartus, wherever a threat originated: by land, air or sea.

Tillerson is uniquely qualified to bring a stern warning to the Russians. As the CEO of ExxonMobil, he negotiated a deal with the state-controlled gas company Rosneft, leading Putin to bestow the Order of Friendship on him. Tillerson gained a reputation for being willing to walk out on energy deals that did not meet his standards.

As secretary of state, he will seek to weaken Russia’s support for Assad leveraging international outrage over Syria’s use of chemical weapons and the U.S. retaliatory strike with the implicit threat it could be used again.

However, the Trump administration still has not explained whether it has a clear strategy to ensure Assad’s departure, and what would prompt the United States to take further military action.

Diplomats in Italy floated the possibility of further sanctions on Russia, on top of those already imposed over Russian’s support for separatists in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea.

The confrontation with Russia reflects a shift in Trump administration thinking. Before last week’s sarin attacks, Trump said the United States would act in its own interests and would be less likely to intervene in foreign conflicts.

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