Will Tillerson's Russian Order of Friendship pay dividends in Syria talks?

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's meeting with Russian officials in Moscow Wednesday, the first by a senior Trump representative, comes as relations between the countries worsen.

They loved him as an oil executive, but this visit to Moscow will be a lot tougher

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, and ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson meet in Sochi, Russia in 2011. Now Tillerson is returning to Russia as U.S. secretary of state, with a tough agenda for meetings Wednesday about Syria. (Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti via Associated Press)

When Rex Tillerson last visited Moscow, he was CEO of ExxonMobil and shopping for oil and gas deals.

Back then, his cred was in good standing: Russian oil interests wanted Exxon's participation so much that Tillerson was awarded the highest badge of honour for a foreigner, the Order of Friendship, pinned on him by President Vladimir Putin in 2013.

How times have changed. Tillerson still has his medal, hidden away in some box, but the U.S. secretary of state spent last weekend castigating Russia as "either complicit or incompetent" for failing to contain chemical weapons in Syria as Russia promised it could, and for failing to ultimately rein in Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president.

By Tuesday, Tilllerson had issued an ultimatum to his friends in Russia, saying's it's either Assad or the U.S.

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

What a way to head into Wednesday's meetings.

The much-vaunted opening toward warmer U.S.-Russian relations is quickly closing. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev posted on Facebook Friday, "That's it," referencing his exasperation at Trump's promises during the election campaign to treat Russia differently and the now glaring reality.

Medvedev concluded any trust there might have been is shattered.

A suspected chemical attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, Syria on April 4 killed dozens of people. Tillerson says Russia was 'either complicit or incompetent' in failing to contain chemical weapons in Syria. (EPA)

So Wednesday, as Tillerson meets with Russia's veteran Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the only consistency with his previous visits is that Tillerson is still looking for a deal — but a complex, vexing, high-stakes geopolitical deal that has frustrated his predecessors.

And Tillerson is no longer the CEO of anything. He's got to listen to a lot of puppeteers around him, from the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner (who some suggest acts like a shadow secretary of state) to the national security adviser to President Donald Trump.

A frustrating, often futile exercise

That can't sit comfortably with Tillerson, a man used to running his own show. As John Kerry, his predecessor in the Obama administration, would attest, striking a deal with Moscow from a seat of limited power is a frustrating and often futile exercise.

As the U.S. ushered in a new administration in January, Lavrov remarked that Kerry was a "tragic figure" because even where he found compromise and openings in his negotiations with Russia, his efforts were thwarted by the White House, by Congress or by the myriad of U.S. interests pulling the strings from Washington.

That, at least, was Lavrov's summation of Kerry's well-trod path to Moscow.
Former U.S. secretary of state John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shake hands after a news conference following their long talks in Moscow on July 15, 2016. Lavrov called Kerry a 'tragic figure' because his efforts to compromise with Russia were thwarted by other U.S. interests. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)

Can Tillerson perform better?

His task is even more complex, more daunting. In the months before the U.S. sent Tomahawk missiles raining down Thursday on a Syrian airbase, Trump repeated that America was not interested in pummelling Syria, getting enmired in its civil war. 

The White House and Tillerson seemed to recognize the possibility of Assad staying in power. That changed with stunning speed after the chemical attack on Idlib.
United States UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks March 29, 2017 at U.N. headquarters. She says the U.S. can see no future for Bashar al-Assad as leader in Syria. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)

UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said the U.S. cannot imagine a stable and peaceful Syria with Assad in charge. Tillerson stepped away from that hard line slightly on Monday, saying with ceasefire agreements, Syrians themselves could decide the future of Assad.

By Tuesday, he had changed his tune, saying, "it is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end.

"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."

He's left a slim opening for the Russians to manoeuvre. 

But signs are slim that Russia is willing to negotiate. On Monday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said with the airstrikes, "the U.S. has shown its complete unwillingness to somehow interact on Syria and take into account the interests and the concerns of others."

Russia still stands by its blanket defence of Assad as the elected leader of a sovereign state.

Assad may have tipped the balance

But underneath the public rhetoric, Assad may have tipped the balance, and not in his favour. Putin can't be happy with Assad's recent attack, especially as if it bears out that Syria did not warn Russia first. In 2013 Putin assured the world he could help eradicate chemical attacks. Assad just proved his ally wrong, a slight the Kremlin won't take lightly.

Putin will not be meeting Tillerson this time. Nothing surprising about that. It was always the Kremlin plan that two senior diplomats meet each other before any historic meeting between Putin and Trump.

But what is remarkable is Trump's about-face on Russia.

Less than two months ago, prospects for this meeting seemed considerably brighter. Even while the Kremlin did not fully endorse the idea that a President Trump would usher in friendlier relations with Russia, a lot of Russians did. And now they are confused, upset, even angry.

What does the U.S. want?

So, against this backdrop, what does the former oil man want from Moscow?

The U.S. still recognizes Russia is the most influential player in Syria and could pressure Assad to end chemical attacks on its citizens. The U.S. also wants a partner in its fight against ISIS, as did Russia. Tillerson will also broach the prospects of ceasefire agreements.

Most analysts agree the White House is not interested in a sustained military intervention inside Syria. Tillerson has been saying recently the U.S. wants peace negotiations in Geneva to succeed. But the administration still seems divided on the question of allowing Assad to stay or forcing him out.
Tillerson testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate foreign relations committee in January in Washington. In Russia on Wednesday, Tillerson will broach the prospects of ceasefire agreements in the Syrian conflict. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The U.S. cannot expect Assad to be immediately removed, as the vacuum of power would further destabilize the region. Killing Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, capturing Saddam Hussein in Iraq and propping up Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan did not solve those countries' civil wars.

Moscow has tied its political ambition to Syria for the time being; it won't be easily pushed off. Tillerson has to convince Moscow to lean on Assad to stop the chemical warfare and to consider ceasefires.

"We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world," Tillerson said Monday.

But will Tillerson's Order of Friendship curry him any unique influence in Moscow?


Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.

With files from The Associated Press