In Tillerson’s First G-7 Talks, a Focus on Familiar Unresolved Conflicts

Diplomats from world powers have spent the past few years trying to figure out how to address the conflict in Syria, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and Russia’s actions in its neighborhood and abroad. Those issues remain a key focus this week, some with a renewed sense of urgency, as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with his G-7 counterparts in Italy before traveling for talks in Moscow.

More concrete outcomes from the G-7 are more likely in late May when leaders of those countries gather for their own summit in Italy.  But foreign ministers meeting Monday and Tuesday are laying the groundwork for those talks, with a priority on their collective efforts to oust the Islamic State group from Syria and Iraq.

Tillerson said Sunday the United States remains committed to an international roadmap developed in Geneva in 2012 for bringing an end to the conflict in Syria, which then was just more than a year old and has since become a massive humanitarian disaster.

Syrians to decide

The Geneva Communique calls for a new Syrian constitution and elections, but does not specify the fate of President Bashar al-Assad.  U.S. officials have in recent days given differing statements on the long-held U.S. policy that Assad should leave power.  Tillerson said Islamic State is the focus for now, and Assad’s future is up to Syrians themselves.

“I think what the United States and our allies want to do is to enable the Syrian people to make that determination,” Tillerson told CBS News.  “We’ve seen what violent regime change looks like in Libya and and the kind of chaos that can be unleashed.”

Libya is another topic for the G-7.  That country has struggled with political instability since the 2011 ouster and killing of longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi, with rival governments and militias seeking to assert authority and a U.N.-led process unable to establish a unified body.

Eastern Ukraine is a concern

Most of the G-7 members took part in a NATO-led air operation backed by a U.N. resolution to protect civilians from strikes by the Libyan government.  Russia expressed opposition to that mission, declaring the resolution to be overly broad in what it allowed.

Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine led the G-7 to suspend Russia’s involvement from what had been the G-8 group of nations.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine is expected to be among the topics Tillerson raises with Russian officials in Moscow.

A senior State Department official said in previewing the trip that Tillerson will likely push Russia to honor its commitments under agreements reached in Minsk to halt fighting in eastern Ukraine and work toward a peaceful resolution to that conflict.

“He will reiterate that sanctions will remain in place until Russia reverses the actions that triggered them, and as well as on the Crimea-related sanctions that will stay in place until there is a change there,” the official said.

North Korea a common foe

North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests will be another topic of discussion, but one where the U.S. and Russia have similar ground, having joined other powers in issuing condemnations of a number of tests in the past year.

A senior State Department official said generally Tillerson will stress that the United States is willing to work with Russia on areas that are beneficial to the American people, but will “hold Russia accountable when it violates international norms.”

The most glaring issue in the relationship may be the finding of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia interfered with last year’s U.S. presidential election with the goal of boosting Trump’s chances of winning.

Tillerson is expected to raise the issue, and according to the senior State Department official, sees it as an example of areas where Russia is “creating tensions unnecessarily that erode trust.”

The talks about overall U.S.-Russia relations will also serve as a step in exploring whether a direct meeting at a higher level — between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin — is to come.

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