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Tillerson warns Russia to break ties with Assad and realign with the West

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, en route to Moscow days after a U.S. missile attack on Syria, is calling on Russia to realign itself with the West and break its alliance with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

His words came Tuesday as G-7 leaders in the Italian city of Lucca failed to reach a consensus on whether there should be new sanctions against Russia for its perceived role in last week's suspected Syrian chemical attack that prompted the U.S. strike. Scores of people were killed in the chemical attack on a rebel-held town in northwestern Syria.

"It is clear to us the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end," Tillerson said shortly before leaving for Moscow, according to Reuters.

"We hope that the Russian government concludes that they have aligned themselves with an unreliable partner in Bashar al-Assad."

At the G-7 meeting Monday night, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said this was the moment for Russia to pick a side.

"I think it's very important that in these circumstances for the world to present a united front and for that there to be absolutely no ambiguity about the message and the message we are sending to the Russians is very, very clear: Do they want to stick with a toxic regime, do they want to be eternally associated with a guy who gases his own people or do they want to work with the Americans and the rest of the G-7 and indeed many other countries for a new future for Syria," Johnson told reporters.

Vincenzo Pinto | AFP | Getty Images

The U.K. and the U.S. reportedly pushed for more sanctions on Russia but it was confirmed on Tuesday that other G-7 leaders were opposed to the idea with no consensus being reached. Italian officials, hosting the meeting, invited members from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Turkey to participate in the discussions, given their geopolitical importance when dealing with the Syrian civil war.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Tuesday his government has evidence that the Assad regime still has the capacity to use chemical weapons. He urged his counterparts to agree on measures to prevent their use, Reuters reported.

The White House authorized the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on Thursday evening in response to what President Donald Trump's administration and several U.S. allies claim was a chemical attack by the Assad regime. This signaled a major shift in the U.S. administration's strategy toward Russia and global politics.

In a phone conversation Monday night, British Prime Minister Theresa May's office said she and Trump "agreed that a window of opportunity now exists in which to persuade Russia that its alliance with Assad is no longer in its strategic interest."

International officials have hardened their tone when addressing Russia, including members of Trump's administration, which had seemed more "Russia-friendly" than previous governments. Tillerson, who when he was head of Exxon Mobil was deemed close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, described Assad's regime as "murderous" on Monday and vowed to dedicate his work to "holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world." Last Thursday, Tillerson said Russia had "failed in its responsibility" to remove Syria's chemical weapons as agreed in 2013 and therefore it was either supporting the chemical attack or it had been "incompetent" in doing what it had agreed to.

Russia has denied the claims of a chemical attack and said the U.S. intervention last week was illegal and that it would not be exchanging information with Trump's administration.

Tillerson is due to meet his Russian counterpart on Wednesday. According to Reuters, he will seek a commitment in which Russia agrees to eliminate the chemical weapons in the Syrian regime.

The Syrian war has been ongoing since 2011.

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