WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took a hard line against Russia before his first diplomatic trip to Moscow, calling Russia “incompetent” for allowing Syria to keep chemical weapons and accusing it of trying to influence elections in Europe as well as the United States.
Tillerson suggested that, in propping up the Syrian president, Russia bears at least partial responsibility for last week’s chemical attack on villagers in Idlib province.
‘‘I hope Russia is thinking carefully about its continued alliance with Bashar al-Assad, because every time one of these horrific attacks occurs, it draws Russia closer into some level of responsibility,’’ he said in one of two televised interviews.
Tillerson’s comments were far more critical of the Russian government than any public statements by President Trump, who has been an increasingly lonely voice for getting along better with Russia.
They seemed to reflect Tillerson’s view, which he has expressed privately to aides and members of Congress, that the US relationship with Russia is already reverting to the norm: one of friction, distrust, and mutual efforts to undermine each other’s reach.
“This was inevitable,” said Philip H. Gordon, a former Middle East coordinator at the National Security Council who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Trump’s early let’s-be-friends initiative was incompatible with our interests, and you knew it would end with tears.”
The Russians’ behavior has not changed, Gordon added, and they “are using every means they can — cyber, economic arrangements, intimidation — to reinsert themselves around the Middle East and Europe.”
“It’s pretty evident that they are taking similar tactics into electoral processes throughout Europe and so they’re really undermining any hope for improved relations with many European countries as well,” Tillerson said Sunday.
Yet as Tillerson arrived in Italy to meet with foreign ministers before making the first visit to Moscow by a top Trump administration official, the administration was sending conflicting signals about US policy on Syria and the future of relations with its patron Russia.
Tillerson said explicitly that the US attack last week on a Syrian air base was intended solely to halt future chemical attacks and not to destabilize or overthrow the Assad government. He said that defeating the Islamic State remained the first priority.
Only then, he said, would he turn to a cease-fire process leading to elections, so that “the Syrian people can decide the fate of Assad.”
But the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, suggested that such a process was doomed as long as Assad was in power.
“We know there’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime,” Haley said on CNN. “If you look at his actions, if you look at the situation, it’s going to be hard to see a government that’s peaceful and stable with Assad.”
That statement stood in contrast not only to Tillerson’s comments but also to her own remarks a week ago — before Assad carried out his latest chemical weapons attack on civilians — in which she insisted that his departure from office was not a diplomatic priority for the United States.
Still, the overall tone of suspicion and condemnation of Russia’s actions in Syria indicated that Trump’s top national security advisers were nudging him back to a more traditional Russia policy.
From his days as chief executive of Exxon Mobil, Tillerson knows President Vladimir Putin of Russia and once received a friendship award from him, and he is aware of the suspicions surrounding those ties and has gone the furthest in the administration in separating himself from the Russian leader.
But that presents a difficult task for Tillerson when he arrives in Moscow Tuesday. While he must offer sharp warnings to his counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, and to Putin if they meet — it was unclear Sunday whether a meeting had been scheduled — he must also find a way forward with them in countering the Islamic State and then dealing with Assad.
The challenges have multiplied in recent days. The Russians, angry about the attack on the air base, have threatened to cut off a communication line that the US and Russian militaries have used to notify each other about air operations in Syria. And the attack has forced Putin into a tighter relationship with Assad, perhaps tighter than the Russian leader wants.
Haley, who, like Tillerson, is new to diplomacy, has also apparently concluded that a hard line toward Russia is the safest course.
The contrast between her remarks and Trump’s warm words for Putin on the campaign trail — as well as his refusal to acknowledge Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election — has been striking.
Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” national security adviser H.R. McMaster left open the possibility of additional US military action against Syria after last week’s strike but indicated that the United States was not seeking to act unilaterally to oust Assad.
McMaster pointed to dual US goals of defeating the Islamic State and removing Assad. But he suggested that Trump was seeking a global political response for regime change from US allies as well as Russia, which he said needed to reevaluate its support of Syria.
‘‘It’s very difficult to understand how a political solution could result from the continuation of the Assad regime,’’ McMaster said. ‘‘Now, we are not saying that we are the ones who are going to effect that change. What we are saying is, other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions.”
“Russia should ask themselves, ‘Why are we supporting this murderous regime that is committing mass murder of its own population?’ ’’ McMaster said.
The Trump administration’s Syria policy has been difficult to parse.
Tillerson, in his first television appearances since taking office, seemed to describe two different strategic objectives: halting chemical attacks and ultimately negotiating a cease-fire. But he made it clear that he had no intention of backing a military intervention that would overthrow Assad.