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article imageAllies claim Tillerson backing for political solution in Syria

By Michelle FITZPATRICK, Bryan MCMANUS (AFP)     Feb 17, 2017 in Politics

US allies won assurances Friday from new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that Washington backed a UN-brokered political solution to the Syria conflict, the latest sign the Trump administration will keep to existing policy.

Tillerson used a G20 gathering in Germany to hold a series of meetings with his global peers, reviewing crises from North Korea to Ukraine at a time of great uncertainty over President Donald Trump's "America First" strategy.

On the sidelines of the event, Washington's top diplomat 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 they were hoping for clarity on whether there had been a change in US policy on Syria, particularly on the future of President Bashar al-Assad.

A new round of United Nations-led talks is set to take place in Geneva on February 23 involving Syrian regime and rebel representatives.

After meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R)  US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) sa...
After meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R), US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) said the US sought cooperation with Moscow only if it "will benefit the American people"
Sascha Schuermann, AFP

- 'No parallel negotiations' -

Under Trump's predecessor Barack Obama, Washington insisted Assad had to go as part of a political solution to end the fighting.

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.

With Russia's sway in the conflict growing since it launched a military intervention in support of Assad's regime, it has seized the initiative by hosting separate peace talks in Kazakhstan along with US ally Turkey, brokering a fragile six-week-old truce on the ground.

Gabriel said the "like-minded" countries had agreed to step up pressure on Russia and make clear there could be no alternative to the UN-led Geneva talks.

"There should not be any parallel negotiations," he said.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, speaking alongside Gabriel, said a key stumbling block was Russia's insistence to view all opposition groups as "terrorists".

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (R) and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi walk to their seat...
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (R) and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi walk to their seats before a meeting on the sidelines of a gathering of G20 foreign ministers in Bonn, western Germany, on February 17, 2017
Brendan SMIALOWSKI, AFP

A Western diplomatic source said Tillerson had made clear in the meeting "there would be no military cooperation with Russia until they distance themselves from Damascus's stance on the opposition."

- 'New friends' -

The former ExxonMobil boss, who kept a low profile and left Bonn without giving the usual press conference, reassured US partners by sticking close to conventional foreign policy.

In his first one-on-one with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, Tillerson pressed Beijing to "use all available tools" to rein in North Korea after its series of nuclear and ballistic missile tests.

A day earlier, he promised Japan and South Korea that Washington would use the full range of its arsenal, including nuclear weapons, to defend the allies against North Korea.

With the White House embroiled in controversy over its ties to the Kremlin, Tillerson was cautious in his dealings with Moscow, despite Trump's pledges to take a softer line.

Following his first sitdown with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday, Tillerson said the US sought cooperation with Moscow only when doing so "will benefit the American people".

In his closing remarks, Germany's Gabriel welcomed the "active role" Tillerson had taken in the G20 debates.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis speaking at a NATO meeting stuck to convention saying Washington w...
US Defense Secretary James Mattis speaking at a NATO meeting stuck to convention saying Washington was not ready "right now" for military collaboration with Russia
THIERRY CHARLIER, AFP/File

"I think he is someone we can work well with," he said.

But other diplomats were less convinced, suggesting the Texan had been light on details.

Ayrault said the US position on the Israel-Palestinian conflict came across as "confused" while comments about the Iran nuclear deal raised questions.

"There needs to be more precision on many issues; for the moment, it is all very general," the Frenchman added.

Asked by reporters how his inaugural trip had gone, Tillerson kept it typically brief.

"Met a lot of people, made a lot of new friends," he replied.

Attention now shifts to the more high-profile Munich Security Conference where US Vice-President Mike Pence will make his international debut.

More about G20, Germany, Diplomacy, Syria, Conflict
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