And the rhetoric from Moscow had been upped also. Expectations for US secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow were not high. And as Tillerson sat down for talks, a senior Russian official attacked the “primitiveness and loutishness” of US rhetoric while spuriously continuing to maintain the gas attacks were “provocations” by rebels anxious to embroil the US in Syria. Some of the raised tension at global level is as much about uncertainty and mixed signals from president Donald Trump as any potentially tougher line emanating from Washington. But that meeting was described as a “tense” encounter. As the Guardian put it, “the question is not so much whether Tillerson can reach an agreement on Syria but whether he can start any sort of dialogue at all”. Lavrov said he was trying to understand – like the rest of us – the “real intentions” of the Trump administration and accused the US of carrying out an unlawful attack against Assad’s forces. The meeting came against the backdrop of blunt and detailed exchanges over Moscow shielding Syria’s government from blame for the Idlib gas attack, the US retaliatory attack on a Syrian air base and a provocative signing by Trump of a treaty on Tuesday in support of Montenegro joining Nato Tillerson travelled to Moscow from a gathering in Italy of foreign ministers from the Group of Seven and Middle Eastern allies which endorsed a joint call for Russia to abandon the Syrian president. But they are talking. It was always unlikely the Russians would announce any immediate U-turn on Syria or support for president Bashar al-Assad. Photograph: Sergei Chirikov/EPA
In the end President Vladimir Putin did deign to meet Tillerson, a sign – diplomats suggest – that the talks earlier with foreign minister Sergei Lavrov were perhaps not as frosty as anticipated. Tillerson told Lavrov that the talks will “further clarify areas of sharp difference” to better work out how to narrow them. But we might get some clarity about US intentions. US secretary of state Rex Tillerson is greeted by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Wednesday. A nationwide TV channel Zvezda declaring ominously on Tuesday night that “only a demonstration of force” could stop Trump in Syria.