Tribune Washington Bureau
Posted with permission from Tribune Content Agency

WASHINGTON — As tensions rise with Russia over Syria, President Donald Trump meets Wednesday at the White House with the head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, giving a high-profile platform to an alliance the Kremlin sees as encroaching into its sphere of influence on Russia's western flank.

Trump will host NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in the Oval Office in the afternoon, and the two men will answer questions in a joint news conference.

The meeting could be colored by the fact that Trump has previously called the alliance "obsolete," but aides said the discussion would focus on ways to goad NATO member countries to increase military spending and focus more attention on stopping terror attacks.

"I don't anticipate it will be an awkward discussion," a senior White House official told reporters Wednesday in advance of the talks. "I think that the secretary general has made clear that he also views it as a priority to get allies to shoulder a greater burden of defense investment and so the president and secretary general are likely to see eye to eye on that issue," the official said.

Trump's outreach to NATO comes as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson received a frosty reception in Moscow during a visit that initially was billed as a way to jump-start better relations between Russia and the U.S.

Tillerson's trip has been dominated by U.S. criticism of Russia's unwavering support for Syrian President Bashar Assad following a gruesome poison-gas attack in northern Syria last week blamed on Assad's forces. That attack prompted a retaliatory U.S. missile strike.

In a further irritant to Moscow, Trump signed off Tuesday on Montenegro joining NATO next month, expanding the alliance's footprint in the Balkans.