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Tillerson to discuss Syria crisis with Russian counterpart

WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will meet this week with Russia’s top diplomat as the two countries try to salvage a relationship that Tillerson says is worse than at any time since the Cold War.

The crisis in Syria is the most urgent topic on the agenda when Tillerson sits down Wednesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Washington. The U.S. is dubious about a new Russian-led plan for safe zones in Syria, but Moscow’s incontrovertible clout in Syria’s civil war has made it impossible for Washington to ignore.

The talks come as the Trump administration works to open lines of communication with Moscow in hopes that that trust can be rebuilt over time. Tillerson, speaking to U.S. diplomats last week, said the approach was to “work on some small things” with Russia and to test “can we work one big thing together” — namely, Syria.

“If we can find space for something we feel we can begin to rebuild some level of trust, because today there is almost no trust between us,” Tillerson said. Last month, he and Lavrov held tense talks in Moscow in which both publicly acknowledged the sour state of relations.

Lavrov, who rarely visits Washington, had been scheduled to meet Tillerson later in the week in Alaska on the sidelines of an Arctic Council summit. Asked whether Lavrov’s visit boded well for improving ties, Tillerson said Monday: “We shall see.”

Both diplomats will still travel to Fairbanks for that summit, where Tillerson will also meet individually with other foreign ministers. Arctic countries have expressed concern that the Trump administration’s environmental positions will undermine efforts to address climate change, especially as President Donald Trump considers withdrawing from the global climate pact reached in Paris.

But David Balton, a top U.S. diplomat who works on ocean and environmental issues, said there would be “no change” to U.S. participation in the council’s climate change work.

“The U.S. will remain engaged in the work that the Arctic Council does on climate change throughout,” Balton told reporters ahead of the summit.

Another high-level channel of communication with Russia opened on Monday as Thomas Shannon, Tillerson’s acting deputy, traveled to New York to meet with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov. In Moscow last month, Tillerson and Lavrov agreed to set up the dialogue between the two men to address grievances that are frustrating the U.S.-Russia relationship.

In his meeting with Lavrov, Tilleron plans to “discuss efforts to de-escalate violence, provide humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, and set the stage for a political settlement of the conflict,” the State Department said in a statement. The two also plan to discuss the Ukraine crisis, another issue where Washington and Moscow have been at odds for years.

The U.S. has been put in a delicate position by a new agreement struck by Russia, Turkey and Iran to create several “safe zones” in Syria with an aim to reduce violence and create conditions to resolve the civil war.

The Trump administration has been developing its own proposals to create stability zones in Syria, making it difficult to argue against a plan that could ostensibly lower violence. But the U.S. is reluctant to let Russia and Iran, two countries that staunchly support Syrian President Bashar Assad, dictate the terms. The U.S. isn’t a party to the deal.

Though it’s already technically taken effect, there are major open questions about the precise locations covered under the deal and other details. Traveling in Denmark on Monday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the U.S. would examine closely the Russia-led deal to “see if it can work.”

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Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP

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