Foreign Ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) nations have called on Russia to help end the war in Syria as they meet in Italy. The gathering comes as tensions rise in the wake of a US airstrike on Syrian forces.
The two-day meeting in the Tuscan city of Lucca started on Monday amid tensions between Russia and the West over the conflict in Syria, just days after US airstrikes on Syrian government forces raised questions about Washington's strategy.
Ahead of the meeting, Western leaders condemned the suspected chemical attack on civilians in northwestern Syria last week. "We rededicate ourselves to holding account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world," US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during a cermony commemorating victims of a Nazi massacre in Italy on Monday.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson meanwhile called for Moscow to stop its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "It's time for [Russian President] Vladimir Putin to face the truth about the tyrant he is propping up," Johnson said, according to a foreign ministry spokesperson. "He must understand that Assad is now toxic in every sense. He is poisoning the innocent people of Syria with weapons that were banned 100 years ago - and he is poisoning the reputation of Russia."
Johnson said foreign ministers "will be discussing the possibility of further sanctions, certainly, on some of the Syrian military figures and indeed on some of the Russian military figures."
Moscow condemned last week's strikes by the US, calling them "a flagrant violation of international law and an act of aggression." In an interview with ABC, Tillerson called on Russia to follow through with its commitment to remove chemical weapons from Syria. "I think the real failure here has been Russia's failure to live up to its commitments under the chemical weapons agreements that were entered into in 2013," he said.
A spokesperson for German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said Russia planned to present a proposalfor an independent investigation into the attack. The spokesman, Martin Schäfer, said Germany viewed this step as "a good and important sign."
While G-7 foreign ministers lined up behind the United States, there are also differences in approaches. Arriving in Lucca, Gabriel said Russia and Iran, Assad's key backers, must play a role in any peace process to end the conflict in Syria
"Now is the right moment to talk about how we can push for a peace process in Syria within the international community - with Russia, with Iran, with Saudi Arabia, with Europe, with the United States," he said. "To prevent military violence to escalate on and on, it's all about this."
Questions about US policy
Though both the EU and the UK came out in support of last week's cruise missile strikes, conflicting statements from top US officials have caused confusion. President Donald Trump had spoken out in the past against attacking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces, and both his secretary of state and his top envoy to the UN delivered starkly different remarks on Sunday concerning the US agenda in Syria.
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, said the removal of Assad was essential to securing peace in Syria. The comment was a departure for the administration, which had previously downplayed the importance of regime change in the country.
Tillerson said Washington's priority remained the defeat of the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) terrorist group. After the group's defeat, officials in Washington would then "hope to turn our attention to ceasefire agreements between the regime and opposition forces," Tillerson said.
North Korea also on the agenda
The G7 ministers will also discuss recent posturing by North Korea, which used the US strikes in Syria as justification for what the G7 host Italy called its "worrisome" nuclear weapons program. Tensions have also been rising in the Asia-Pacific region following comments by Trump that Washington would act against Pyongyang with or without the help of China, North Korea's most important ally.
The US Navy is headed to the Korean Peninsula after the North launched a missile in the lead-up to a meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week.
Representatives from the EU will also attend the meeting with the G7, which is made up of the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the US. Russia was formally suspended from the group - originally referred to as the G8 - after its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea in 2014.
cw/blc/rt (dpa, Reuters)