By Michael Hernandez
WASHINGTON (AA): Calling Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” for Russia’s actions in support of Syrian forces in Aleppo would be inaccurate, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to be America’s next top diplomat said Wednesday.
“I would not use that term,” Rex Tillerson said on repeated questioning by high-ranking lawmaker Marco Rubio during his Senate confirmation hearing.
Moscow carried out a pounding aerial offensive to assist forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that left much of eastern Aleppo in ruins, and displaced or killed scores of civilians.
Assad’s victory there last month cemented his most prized gain in Syria’s six-year conflict, putting an end to a long-standing Syrian opposition bastion.
But critics have maintained that the campaign that secured his win is fraught with rights violations, including the deliberate targeting of residential areas, schools and hospitals.
“Those are very, very serious charges to make and I would want to have much more information before reaching a conclusion,” Tillerson responded when pressed on the allegations.
Tillerson urged the U.S. to re-engage with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“This is a long-standing NATO ally that in the absent of American leadership, he [Erdogan] got pretty nervous about his situation and he turned to who was next available,” Tillerson said, pointing to Ankara’s detente with Moscow.
“He turned to an ally in Russia that is not a sustainable ally. And it’s making clear to him, that is not a sustainable alliance, your sustainable alliance is with the United States of America,” he said.
Still, Tillerson urged the “recommit to the Syrian Kurds”, referring to the YPG, which has formed the backbone of Washington’s principal partner in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Washington’s reliance on the YPG has long irked Ankara, and been a major strain on relations between the NATO allies.
Turkey views the YPG as the Syrian-offshoot of the PKK, which the U.S. and Turkey designate as a terror group.
The U.S. has not labeled the YPG as such.
While urging a recalibration of U.S. Syria policy, the former ExxonMobil CEO who has had close business ties with Russia said Moscow is “a danger” to the U.S.
“But it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests,” said Tillerson. “We need an open and frank dialog with Russia regarding its ambitions so we know how to chart our own course.
“A cooperation with Russia based on common interest is possible,” he said pointing to potential joint counterterrorism efforts.
He acknowledged it is a “fair assumption” that Putin directly orchestrated a sweeping influence campaign aimed at undermining Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in favor of Trump.
And in a break with his potential boss, Tillerson voiced support for a nascent free trade deal with Asia, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump has long-lambasted.
Tillerson stepped down from this post at ExxonMobil at the end of 2016.
[Photo:Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobile, answers questions during his confirmation hearing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where they are deciding whether or not they will accept President-elect Trumps nomination of Tillerson to be Secretary of State at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, USA on January 11, 2017. Photographer: Muhabiri Samuel Corum/AA]