Tillerson's Moscow visit takes on fresh urgency in wake of U.S. missile attack against Syria

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the U.S. missile attack against a Syrian airbase Thursday "proportional because it was targeted at the facility that delivered this most recent chemical weapons attack."

He said U.S. President Donald Trump considered a "wide range of options" before launching dozens of Tomahawk missiles against an airbase in the province of Homs around 8:45 p.m. ET.

​"I think the president made the correct choice and made the correct decision," Tillerson said. "First, to be decisive in acting, acting against this heinous act on the part of [Syrian President] Bashar Assad but acting in a way that was clearly directed at the source of this particular attack to send that strong message.

Tillerson was speaking to the White House press pool from Palm Beach, Fla., where U.S. President Donald Trump had been meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago estate earlier Thursday. 

The secretary of state said the presence of the kind of weapons that were used in Tuesday's sarin gas attack — which the U.S. and other Western nations attribute to Assad — in the "chaotic circumstances that exist on the ground in Syria" posed a threat — especially given "the presence of a battle underway to defeat ISIS, the presence of Al-Qaeda elements inside of Syria and a civil war that is underway." 

- LIVE BLOG | Follow live coverage of the U.S. missile attack

"Clearly, one of the existential threats we see on the ground in Syria, is if there are weapons of this nature available in Syria, the ability to secure those weapons and not have them fall into the hands of those who would bring the weapons to our shores to harm American citizens," he said.

"So, there are a number of elements that in our view that called for this action tonight, which we feel is appropriate." 

Tillerson said the U.S. "co-ordinated very carefully" with its international partners around the world before launching the missiles.

"I would tell you that the response from our allies, as well as the region and the Middle East, has been overwhelmingly supportive of the action we taken," he said.

A spokesperson for the Kremlin, however, said Russian President Vladimir Putin saw the airstrikes as an act of "aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law." 

Until Thursday, the U.S. had avoided striking Assad's forces largely out of concern about being pulled into a military conflict with Russia.

Tillerson to travel to Russia next Tuesday

Tillerson is due to to travel to Russia next Tuesday, the first visit to Russia by a Trump administration official and one scheduled before Thursday's missile strike as a test of the administration's hopes for closer ties to the former Cold War foe.

Tillerson, speaking just after the strikes were announced, said Russia had "failed in its responsibility" to deliver on a 2013 deal it helped broker to destroy Syria's chemical weapons arsenal.

- ANALYSIS | Attack is a win-win for Trump

"So either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent on its ability to deliver," Tillerson said.

The State Department said Tillerson had spoken by phone to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after the chemical attack to get Russia's take on what happened. Russia has maintained that Syrian airstrikes hit a depot where anti-Assad rebels were building chemical weapons, a claim the U.S. has vigorously disputed.

Tillerson is set to arrive in Moscow next Tuesday after a brief visit to Lucca, Italy, to meet with counterparts from the Group of 7 industrialized economies. While in Russia, Tillerson plans to meet with Lavrov.

Attack comes amid investigations into Russia ties

Growing disagreements about Syria are just the latest obstacle to any plans Trump had to closer align the U.S. and Russia on the world stage. Trump and his associates are embroiled in mushrooming investigations into potential collusion between his presidential campaign and Putin's government, accused by U.S. spy agencies of interfering in the election to help elect Trump.

Despite Trump's much-hyped campaign talk about a Russia reset, there's no appetite for that from either political party in the U.S. Skepticism about Russia's intentions was only compounded by its defence of Assad after the chemical attack, which killed at least 70 people.

Even minor concessions to Russia during Tillerson's trip would trigger immediate accusations from Trump's opponents that the president — who has praised Putin generously and repeatedly — is beholden to Putin, a former KBG agent. Add to that Trump's anger at Russia for violating a nuclear arms treaty and continued global outrage over Putin's actions in Ukraine, and it's difficult to see realistic chances for near-term rapprochement.

"I think the Russians have adjusted their expectations down as to the possibilities of a breakthrough, and what happened in Syria is going to add to that," said Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama. Still, he said the Russians would likely treat Tillerson warmly in hopes his trip could smooth the path toward a Trump-Putin meeting.

'Exploratory trip'

Tillerson may also meet with Putin, in what would be a reunion of sorts for two men who did business when Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil CEO, was negotiating oil deals in Russia. Tillerson's close ties to Russia — Putin once gave him the "Order of Friendship" award — drew serious concerns during Tillerson's confirmation hearings, but he's since emerged as one of the Trump administration's more sober voices about Russia's behavior.

Senior State Department officials described Tillerson's visit as an "exploratory trip" aimed at determining any potential for co-operation, adding that no decisions to increase cooperation had been made. The officials briefed reporters on condition of anonymity despite Trump's condemnations of the press for using anonymous sources.

Tillerson may or may not meet with pro-democracy activists in Russia, as members of Congress have urged, the officials said.

Relations with Russia have steadily deteriorated since 2014, when Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and then began arming and assisting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The Obama administration and Western countries slapped Moscow with severe economic sanctions that Trump has so far vowed to keep in place until Russia gives Crimea back.

Still, Putin's government has been optimistic about Trump's presidency. Until Tuesday's chemical attack in Syria, Trump and his deputies said their top focus in Syria was fighting the Islamic State group — not ousting Assad — a position that aligned with Putin's own publicly stated goal.

For Trump, who said Thursday that "something should happen" to Assad, the attack clearly was an inflection point that focused his administration on Assad's atrocities and the support he receives from Russia, Syria's most powerful ally.

In an Associated Press interview, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia's support for Assad is not unconditional, but also pushed back on the notion that Putin had unfettered influence over Assad.

"It is not correct to say that Moscow can convince Mr. Assad to do whatever is wanted in Moscow," Peskov said.

James Carafano, a Heritage Foundation scholar who advised Trump's transition team on foreign policy, said the notion that Trump would have a special relationship with Putin was always overblown.

"Nobody was talking about, 'We're just going to cut a deal with Russia and be done here,"' Carafano said.