Allies claim US backing for political solution in Syria

Rex Tillerson
Rex Tillerson

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

US allies said they had won assurances Friday from new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that Washington backed a political solution to the Syria conflict, ahead of UN peace talks.

On the sidelines of a G20 gathering in Germany, Tillerson joined a group of countries who support the Syrian opposition for talks on a way to end the nearly six-year war.

“All the participants want a political solution because a military solution alone won’t lead to peace in Syria,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told reporters in Bonn, adding that “Tillerson became very involved in the debates.”

The meeting of the so-called “like-minded” nations — made up of around a dozen Western and Arab countries as well as Turkey — was the first since President Donald Trump took office.

Diplomats had said before the talks that they were hoping for clarity on whether there had been a change in US policy on Syria, particularly on the future of President Bashar Assad.

The meeting came ahead of a new round of United Nations-led talks in Geneva on February 23 involving Syrian regime and rebel representatives.

Under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, Washington insisted Assad had to go, putting it at odds with Moscow which backs the Syrian leader.

But Trump has called for closer cooperation with Moscow in the fight against the Islamic State jihadist group in Syria, downplaying what happens to Assad as secondary to US interests.

With Russia’s sway in the conflict growing, Moscow has seized the initiative by hosting separate peace talks in Kazakhstan along with Turkey, to broker a fragile six-week truce between Syria’s warring parties.

Gabriel said the “like-minded” countries had agreed to step up pressure on Russia to back a political solution, reaffirming that there could be no alternative to the UN-led Geneva talks.

“Any political solution must be obtained in the framework of the Geneva negotiations and there should not be any parallel negotiations,” he said.

Tillerson, on his first diplomatic trip abroad, has used the two-day G20 event as a chance to sit down with a string of foreign counterparts unsure about what Trump’s “America First” policy means for them.

The former Exxonmobil boss on Friday held his first talks with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, the highest level Sino-US encounter yet after the two powers got off to a rocky start under Trump.

Trump angered Beijing by questioning the “One China” policy agreed in the 1970s as the basis for what has become one of the most important global relationships.

Wang only agreed to go to Bonn after a conciliatory phone call between Trump and President Xi Jinping in which the US president backtracked on his earlier comments.

Tillerson has also moved to reassure nervous allies with a cautious approach to Russia, signalling there would be no radical shift despite Trump’s pledges to seek a softer line.

Speaking after his first sitdown with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday, the Texan said the US sought cooperation with Moscow only when doing so “will benefit the American people.”

After the G20 ends on Friday, the politics moves to the high-profile Munich Security Conference where US Vice President Mike Pence will make his international debut.

“He’s going to reassure our allies of our commitment to our European partners and the reassurance for the transatlantic alliance,” a senior White House adviser said.

In a speech on Saturday, Pence is expected to reassert Washington’s commitment to NATO while pressing member states to follow through on pledges to share more of the defense spending burden.

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