Canada's Foreign Minister On Tillerson, The G-7 And Russia
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is heading back to Washington, D.C., today after a trip that included a face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Syria was the focus of those talks, specifically Russia's unwavering support for the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, a regime the Trump administration has now said is on its way out. Here's Secretary Tillerson yesterday.
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REX TILLERSON: There is a low level of trust between our two countries. The world's two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.
MARTIN: Referring there to the relationship between the U.S. and Russia. Right before he flew to Moscow, Tillerson was in Italy meeting with his counterparts in the G7. Our next guest was at the table. Her name is Chrystia Freeland, and she is Canada's foreign minister. She joins us now. Minister Freeland, thanks so much for being with us.
CHRYSTIA FREELAND: Good morning, Rachel. It's great to be with you.
MARTIN: What was the tenor of the G7 meeting? I mean, was everyone on the same page when it comes to Russia's involvement in Syria?
FREELAND: Absolutely. I think it was a very consequential meeting, partly because it was Secretary Tillerson's first G7 meeting as secretary of state, but partly because the events in Syria had happened just a few days before. And we felt as G7 foreign ministers that the single most important message, the single most important conclusion of our meeting was we wanted Rex to go to Moscow very confident that he was representing, not just the U.S. position on Syria and Russia, but that he was there with a strong collective G7 mandate.
And that's how he traveled to Moscow. He traveled to Moscow with the full support of his allies and very much with the full support of Canada.
MARTIN: You said this week at the G7 meeting that, quote, "Russia has a chance to get on the right side of history over Syria." Is that any closer now? I mean, you've delivered this cohesive message, but Russia doesn't appear to be budging.
FREELAND: Look, none of us - none of the - and by us I mean the G7 foreign ministers - none of us are naive. It's not the first rodeo for anybody. I was a foreign correspondent in Moscow for many years. Secretary Tillerson knows Russia very well, and I think none of us very much including Secretary Tillerson expected an instant result. No one thought that Rex was going to go to Moscow, meet with President Putin and come out with a change of heart. That's not how any country works very much including Russia.
But I think it was an important opportunity, and I'm very glad the Putin meeting happened for Secretary Tillerson to lay out clearly that this is a crossroads. And there is a negative choice, but there's also a positive choice right now on the table for Russia. Russia doesn't have to be married to the regime of Assad, a regime which has committed heinous war crimes.
Russia can choose to say, you know, what? Now is going to be our moment when we're going to pressure that regime, when we're going to be a constructive partner to help achieve peace in Syria. And if Russia does that, there are lots of opportunities for cooperation.
MARTIN: Let me ask you - the Trump administration went from being lukewarm on Assad's removal from power to calling for him to step down in the space of a week or be removed through a diplomatic solution, but gone. Are you clear on the U.S. policy in Syria?
FREELAND: Yes, I am. And certainly after a long - many hours spent on Monday and Tuesday in, you know, the G7 foreign ministers format is a very intimate format. It's just ministers around the table. I think we probably spent 10 or 12 hours just the seven of us talking. Secretary Tillerson was very clear on the U.S. position. And what he said in private was very much what he said in public.
I have to say, you know, speaking as a Canadian, we're a country that has welcomed with real pleasure and gratitude more than 40,000 Syrian refugees. A lot of those are people fleeing from Assad, from a leader who is committing crimes against his own people. We could not be part of a solution in Syria which left that man in office. I just I couldn't face our new Canadian-Syrians if we were part of that. So I think it's absolutely the right thing to do, and I think it's very possible.
And it's important, as Secretary Tillerson has said, that saying that Assad must go in no way contradicts the position that they're - now we need to go back with new energy to the negotiating table. There needs to be a peaceful settlement. That very much needs to include the Alawites. They need to be secure in Syria, too.
MARTIN: You have a personal connection to this in some way, at least Russia's involvement. You were banned from traveling to Russia in 2014 in part over your support for Russian sanctions after Crimea was annexed. How has that shaped your opinion of Russia and whether or not the government there can be a partner that is reliable?
FREELAND: I don't think it has. You know, when I discovered that I was on Russia's sort of tit-for-tat sanction list at the time I was an opposition member of Parliament, I was a little bit surprised to be distinguished in that way. I was very clear at the time that I really like Russia. I loved living in Moscow. I speak Russian. I have lots of Russian friends.
I hope one day to go back, but I think, you know, with Crimea - and, again, Secretary Tillerson and all the Southern foreign ministers were very clear on this - the invasion and annexation of Crimea was a grave breach of international law and tremendously dangerous. You know, the Europeans feel that very much. Changing borders in Europe is a terrible precedent. It's something that world wars have been fought over, and we all need to take a strong stand on it.
MARTIN: Chrystia Freeland is the Canadian foreign minister. She was at the G7 meeting with Secretary of State Tillerson in Italy. Thank you so much for your time.
FREELAND: Great to be with you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.