West torn over strategy towards Russia and Syria

Nine-year-old Syrian Hadi Mustafa Habbush, who was rescued from under the rubble of a building following Russian air strikes, is seen here recuperating in a hospital in Aleppo.
Nine-year-old Syrian Hadi Mustafa Habbush, who was rescued from under the rubble of a building following Russian air strikes, is seen here recuperating in a hospital in Aleppo.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Meeting held to persuade EU to condemn air campaign in Syria and pave way for new sanctions

NEW YORK • Western powers are weighing new economic sanctions against the Syrian and Russian governments over the bombardment of Aleppo.

The move came after US Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson all but ruled out a military response to end the siege in the Syrian city, where 250,000 people remain trapped in the rebel-held east. 

"I don't see a big appetite in Europe for people to go to war; we are pursuing diplomacy because those are the tools that we have," Mr Kerry said following talks in London on Sunday. "We are considering additional sanctions. President Obama has not taken any option off the table." 

Sunday's meeting included representatives from France, Germany, Italy, Turkey and Middle Eastern allies, and followed talks on Saturday in Switzerland, involving Russia.

Those talks ended without result as Moscow warned that the risk of conflict is increasing between the two former Cold War rivals.

Britain, France and Germany were expected yesterday to use a European Union foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg to try to persuade the EU to condemn Russia's air campaign in Syria and pave the way for more sanctions. But the EU, while stepping up efforts to support the US in its bid to stop the bombing of Aleppo, is split over strategy towards Russia, its biggest energy supplier.

The EU already has extensive sanctions in place against Syria, including oil and arms embargoes, plus restrictions on more than 200 individuals and 70 entities.

Britain and France, with the support of Germany, are pushing for economic sanctions on another 20 Syrians suspected of directing attacks on civilians.

"There are a lot of measures we're proposing to do with extra sanctions on the Syrian regime and their supporters, measures to bring those responsible for war crimes to the International Criminal Court," said Mr Johnson ahead of the Luxembourg meeting.

Not on the agenda yesterday but likely to be scheduled for an EU leaders' meeting on Thursday is a push by Paris and London to consider travel bans and asset freezes on as many as 12 Russians involved in the Syrian conflict.

While further measures against Damascus are possible, the EU is not considering sanctions against Russia, the bloc's foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini said yesterday ahead of the meeting.

"This has not been proposed by any member state," Ms Mogherini said when asked about steps against Moscow.

The idea may be too much for Russia's closest EU allies such as Greece, Cyprus and Hungary, worried about angering the Kremlin with talk of sanctions and putting peace talks further out of reach.

"Some governments are cautious about being tough on Russia,"said an EU diplomat. "But equally, they know that the EU is at risk of being seen to be doing nothing."

Any new measures must be agreed by all 28 EU governments.

A draft of the diplomatic statement to be delivered after yesterday's talks said EU ministers condemn the "catastrophic escalation" of the Syrian government offensive to capture eastern Aleppo. The draft said that air strikes on hospitals and civilians "may amount to war crimes".

Meanwhile, 14 members of the same family were killed in an air strike in rebel-held eastern Aleppo yesterday, emergency service workers said, as the Syrian government pursued its campaign to capture opposition-held areas of the city. A list of the dead published by the Civil Defence rescue service operating in rebel-held areas included several infants, among them two six-week-old babies and six children aged eight or below. The group identified the jets as Russian.

A Syrian military source said the army targeted terrorists in three areas of Aleppo yesterday, killing seven of them. The government refers to all rebel fighters as terrorists.

Diplomats say charities' trucks carrying aid are also being delayed in their attempts to get through government checkpoints to eastern Aleppo from the western part of the city.

BLOOMBERG, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2016, with the headline 'West torn over strategy towards Russia and Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe