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EU cool on Russia sanctions over Syria

The EU has no appetite for sanctions on Russia over its role in Syria, but is mulling over additional measures against Damascus. Hopes for a resolution to the conflict have been pinned on an elusive diplomatic solution.

European Union foreign ministers met to discuss how to respond to the Syrian crisis on Monday, but shot down the idea of imposing sanctions on Russia, as an offensive against rebels in Aleppo continues to ravage the city.

"This has not been proposed by any member state," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said as she arrived for the meeting in Luxembourg, referring to expanding sanctions on Russia over its role in Syria. "But we have sanctions on the Syrian regime... and there are discussions on that, for sure, (expanding) that could be possible," she added.

Mogherini's comments came despite the United States and Britain on Sunday saying they were considering measures against Syria and its supporters over the siege of Aleppo, although the two country's top diplomats admitted there was little appetite for military intervention in the country.

The EU and United States already have a host of sanctions on Syria, but they have done little to change the calculus of President Bashar al-Assad as his forces - supported by Iran-backed militia and Russian warplanes - appear to be turning the tide of the war in Damascus's favor.

Arriving in Luxembourg, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the aim of the meeting was to discuss "how to keep the pressure up on the Assad regime and on its puppeteers in the form of the Russian government, but also of course the Iranians and what we can do to bring pressure there."

"As everybody knows there are a variety that we're doing, there's economic sanctions, but there's a huge amount of diplomatic pressure also being applied," he added.

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Kerry: Aleppo largest humanitarian disaster since WWII

No concensus on sanctions

Few EU states support piling additional sanctions on Russia, which is already under Western sanctions for its 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in eastern Ukraine.  Those Ukraine-related sanctions have already exposed rifts within the 28-member bloc.

"I do not think it would be fruitful if we discuss now for hours if and how and when we are going to decide on sanctions against Russia," Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said.

"Firstly, we will not find a consensus and secondly I believe as well, that it is not the right time and it would be counter-productive," he said.

The EU foreign policy meeting comes after renewed talks over the weekend between the United States and Russia, alongside seven regional states, to orchestrate a ceasefire and humanitarian aid deliveries to Aleppo, where rebels and some 250,000 civilians are under siege. Saturday's talks in Switzerland were followed on Sunday by separate talks between the United States and European states in London.

"Coming from there, it is progress that we have this weekend managed to get important negotiators together to talk about Syria," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on Monday. "At present I don't see how sanctions, which may have a long-term impact, should help here to improve the provision of the civilian population," said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Luxemburg Steinmeier beim EU Außenministertreffen (Getty Images/AFP/J. Thys)

Steinmeier said he was not alone in concluding sanctions on Russia would not improve the situation of civilians.

Germany's top diplomat said the goal of international talks was at a "minimum… to reach humanitarian solutions but this should lead to ceasefire talks for the whole of Syria. And possibly a political solution for Syria."

Syria aims to turn tide of war

The main sticking points in the conflict continues to be implementing a sustained ceasefire among a multitude of armed groups, separating Western-, Gulf-, and Turkish-backed rebels from recognized terrorist groups, opening besieged areas to humanitarian aid, and ultimately agreeing on a road map for a political solution in which international and regional powers have different views on the role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the future of the country.

Russia's Foreign Ministry reiterated Sunday that in order for a US-Russian ceasefire agreement to succeed and to facilitate humanitarian aid deliveries, Syria's opposition must disavow any links to Jabhat Fatah al Sham, previously known as the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front, and other "terrorist groups" affiliated with it. 

The breakdown last month of the ceasefire negotiated between Washington and Moscow has been followed by a major uptick in violence in Aleppo, where government forces - supported by Iran-backed militia and Russian air power - are pressing an offensive to retake the eastern part of the city from encircled rebels of various shades and where some 250,000 civilians are trapped.

Retaking the heavily destroyed city, Syria's most populous before the war, would increase the regime's negotiating position, turn the rebellion against him into an insurgency largely confined to the countryside of Idlib province, and deal a severe blow to rebels.

But the intensity of the assault on Aleppo and the humanitarian crisis it has triggered has also put pressure on Russia to use its influence to put a halt to the offensive, which some Western countries have said may amount to war crimes.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Monday that with diplomatic efforts locked, Russia was engaged in "the logic of destruction, alongside the Assad regime."

"What is happening in Aleppo is a humanitarian catastrophe, so everything possible must be done to stop the bombing and allow humanitarian aid ... to get to the population," Ayrault said.

cw/xx (AFP, AP, dpa)

 

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