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Tillerson's Moscow Visit Is Overshadowed By U.S. Strikes On Syria

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On the coastline of Syria, there's a little port city called Tartus. It's a kind of resort. People linger under umbrellas on the beach. You also find naval vessels in the harbor because it's a naval base for Russia. Its existence is one reason Russia still supports Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Today in Moscow, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson becomes the latest U.S. official hoping to persuade Russia to back off. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: On previous trips to Moscow when Tillerson was running ExxonMobil, he was feted with champagne and a prestigious award from Vladimir Putin. This time around, he's secretary of state trying to work through a lot of disputes. Russia blasted the U.S. for striking a Syrian airbase while Tillerson told ABC's "This Week" that Russia failed to prevent a chemical weapons attack in Idlib.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK")

REX TILLERSON: I don't draw conclusions of complicity at all, but clearly they had been incompetent and, perhaps, they've just simply been outmaneuvered by the Syrians.

KELEMEN: This was supposed to be a trip aimed at finding some common cause in Syria to fight ISIS. Russia argues that President Bashar al-Assad's forces are best placed to do so. Secretary Tillerson wants Russia to rethink its ties to the Assad regime, and that was echoed by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson who met Tillerson on the sidelines of a group of seven meeting in Italy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BORIS JOHNSON: Do they want to stick with a toxic regime? Do they want to be eternally associated with a guy who gasses his own people or do they want to work with the Americans and the rest of the G7 and, indeed, like many countries, for a new future for Syria?

KELEMEN: So far though, Russia and Iran continue to back Assad, and Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee says Moscow has not been helping in the fight against terrorism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS COONS: What they are doing is facilitating an Iranian beachhead into Syria in a sustained presence there and making possible the survival of one of the worst regimes in modern human history.

KELEMEN: Coons spoke to the Brookings Institution recently about other troublesome areas and relations from Russia's meddling in U.S. elections to the conflict in Ukraine. And he said he and his colleagues are calling on Tillerson to meet human rights activists while in Russia as other secretaries of state have done.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COONS: There are truly troubling events recently that suggest an ongoing use of force and thuggery to suppress dissent and to try and achieve certain results in journalism, in regional affairs that I think really deserve attention and focus from Secretary Tillerson.

KELEMEN: U.S. officials wouldn't rule out meetings with activists, but there's nothing so far on Tillerson's schedule. President Putin also appears to be keeping Tillerson waiting. The Kremlin has not yet announced whether the two men will meet. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.