The EU's foreign policy chief has said it is the bloc's top priority to save the besieged city of Aleppo. European leaders called out Russia for aiding the Syrian regime, but stopped short of proposing punitive action.
United Nations Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura said he'd conveyed to European Union foreign ministers just how stark the scenario is right now at ground zero in Syria, the rebel-held city of Aleppo: "Between now and December," he said, "if we are not finding a solution for Aleppo, Aleppo will not be there anymore."
De Mistura, who'd been invited to the ministerial meeting in Luxembourg by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, said the rebel-held city had been bombed "for more than a month [with] no access to it" for humanitarian aid. Of the 275,000 inhabitants who have remained in the city despite the incessant air attacks, de Mistura said 100,000 were children. He urged the EU to unify and find a way to save these people.
His words seemed to have an impact, as foreign ministers ended up approving a final statement more forceful than the language most had used on their ways into the meeting, perhaps stronger than many had thought could be mustered with unanimity:
"Since the beginning of the offensive by the regime and its allies, notably Russia, the intensity and scale of the aerial bombardment of eastern Aleppo is clearly disproportionate and the deliberate targeting of hospitals, medical personnel, schools and essential infrastructure, as well as the use of barrel bombs, cluster bombs, and chemical weapons, constitute a catastrophic escalation of the conflict and have caused further widespread civilian casualties, including amongst women and children and may amount to war crimes," the statement read.
EU 'appalled' by actions of regime 'and its allies'
"Priority number one now is to save Aleppo, to save the people of Aleppo," Mogherini said. "Our strong call is on Russia and on the Syrian regime to stop the bombing on Aleppo and to continue talks with the US and other key players on the ground to avoid a …humanitarian catastrophe in the city."
The document also calls on Russia to make all efforts to "halt indiscriminate bombing by the Syrian regime" - though without going so far as to mention Russia is doing much of the bombing itself - and demands "immediate and expanded humanitarian access" to besieged civilians.
Will Russia respond?
While ministers debated, the head of Russia's military general staff announced there would be a "humanitarian pause" on Thursday so that sick and wounded civilians could be evacuated.
While Mogherini welcomed "anything that could alleviate the humanitarian suffering, the catastrophe that we're seeing in Aleppo," she also noted that UN humanitarian experts had said they'd need 12 hours to perform the needed rescues.
As for whether being "appalled" by Russia's actions means EU leaders are willing to consider punitive measures against Moscow, analysts aren't betting on it.
So far only one head of state, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has called for increased European Union sanctions against Russia for its actions in Syria. This was reported by the newspaper, "Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung."
But it's unclear whether Merkel herself will be making that recommendation later this week at the leaders' summit in Brussels.
Sanctions an option, but not one anyone wants
Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at London's Institute for Statecraft, isn't surprised the meeting resulted in mere condemnation rather than a proposal for more punitive measures. "The EU always finds it difficult to agree whether to be tough or encouraging on Russia," he said. "Some EU states look at Russia and see a problem, others look at it and see an opportunity, so they pull in opposite directions."
Nimmo notes even the already complicated path to getting sanctions passed by the EU 28 is much harder now because of the raft of penalties currently in place on Russia. "The easy targets have already been sanctioned," Nimmo pointed out. Even if there were willingness among governments, he told DW, "agreeing on further measures would require a lot of debate as to what and who, exactly, should be sanctioned."
Marc Pierini, who served as the EU ambassador to Syria, doesn't think battling over sanctions would be a productive use of EU might anyway, because the two men who could change the fate of Aleppo, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin, have no impetus to do so, regardless of EU ire. Now a visiting fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, Pierini says the situation is basically stuck.
"The regime cannot afford to lose Aleppo," Pierini said, and Russia will continue helping them do that, unless Putin sees that it's hurting him politically. But instead, Pierini explained, "domestically Putin is gaining from this kind of brutal image, so I don't have much hope."