US hopes Russia will abandon Syria regime support, says Assad reign 'coming to an end'

LUCCA Italy, April 11 (Reuters) - Russia should abandon its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after his repeated use of chemical weapons and join the United States to map out a peaceful future for Syria, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Tuesday.

Tillerson's comments came an hour before he flew to Moscow from a Group of Seven meeting in Italy to meet with his Russian counterpart.

Putin has been Assad's top international backer since 2015 amid a brutal civil war that has dragged on six years now. Washington responded to a chemical attack last week that killed dozens, including many children, with a missile strike against an Assad air base.

RELATED: A look at the horrifying aftermath of Syria gas attack

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ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A man carries the body of a dead child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH People stand near a dead body, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
A man breathes through an oxygen mask as another one receives treatments, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
A man breathes through an oxygen mask, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH Men stand near dead bodies, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A Syrian child receives treatment at a hospital in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following an attack on April 4, 2017. A suspected chemical attack killed at least 58 civilians including several children in rebel-held northwestern Syria, a monitor said, with the opposition accusing the government and demanding a UN investigation. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
A man holds an injured baby inside a Turkish ambulance as injured Syrian people enter into Turkey from the Cilvegozu border gate in Hatay province, near the Syrian border on April 4, 2017. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on April 4, 2017 condemned a suspected chemical attack in northwestern Syria as an 'inhuman' strike that could endanger peace talks based in the Kazakh capital. / AFP PHOTO / DOGAN NEWS AGENCY / - / Turkey OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A wounded kid receives medical treatment at sahra hospital after Assad Regime forces's attack with chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Abdulghani Arian/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A woman gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A child gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A man carries the body of a dead child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A crater is seen at the site of an airstrike, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Turkish officials with chemical clothes carry a injured man on April 4, 2017 in Hatay province, near the Syrian border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on April 4, 2017 condemned a suspected chemical attack in northwestern Syria as an 'inhuman' strike that could endanger peace talks based in the Kazakh capital. / AFP PHOTO / DOGAN NEWS AGENCY / - / Turkey OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Bodies lie in the parking area of a hospital in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following a suspected toxic gas attack on April 4, 2017. A suspected chemical attack killed at least 58 civilians including several children in rebel-held northwestern Syria, a monitor said, with the opposition accusing the government and demanding a UN investigation. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A child gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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"Russia has aligned with the Assad regime, the Iranians and Hezbollah. Is that a long-term alliance that serves Russia's interest?" Tillerson said to reporters in Lucca, Italy, calling the use of a nerve agent an act of "barbarism."

"We hope that the Russian government concludes that they have aligned themselves with an unreliable partner in Bashar Al-Assad.... It is clear to us the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end," he added.

Tillerson, a former Exxon oil executive, will face his biggest challenge so far as Washington's top diplomat when he is in Moscow.

Assad's allies have stood firmly by him. A joint command center made up of the forces of Russia, Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah militia said on Sunday it would respond to any new aggression, and that its support for Assad would increase.

While Tillerson's message is similar to the one espoused for years by former president Barack Obama, last week's missile attack marked the first time the United States has directly targeted Assad's military.

Tillerson said Russia had failed to act as guarantor for a 2013 agreement to rid Syria of chemical weapons, which remain a threat amid the "chaotic conditions on the ground in Syria."

"We do not want the regime's uncontrolled stockpile of chemical weapons to fall into the hands of ISIS (Islamic State) or other terrorist groups who could and want to attack the United States or our allies," Tillerson said.

"Nor can we accept the normalization of the use of chemical weapons by other actors or countries in Syria or elsewhere," he added.

The United States has been conducting air strikes Islamic State militants in the region since 2014. Tillerson repeated that destroying Islamic State remained Washington's top priority. (Reporting Steve Scherer Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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