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EU still has room for action

Barbara Wesel Kommentarbild App *PROVISORISCH*
Barbara Wesel
October 17, 2016

The EU says Russia's military support is contributing to the Syrian regime's war crimes in Aleppo. But Brussels is wavering when it comes to standing up to President Vladimir Putin, writes DW's Barbara Wesel.

Syrien Zerstörung und Friedhof in Aleppo
Image: Reuters/A. Ismail

Admittedly the language being used by EU leaders toward Russia is getting stronger. Frederica Mogherini, the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, has directly demanded that Russia cease bombing Aleppo. In London, Paris and Berlin, there is open talk of war crimes being committed by Russia's forces. But, despite the outrage, there has been no action taken so far. At any rate, there is no agreement among European foreign ministers about what is to be done - apart from general hand wringing.

Barbara Wesel Kommentarbild App *PROVISORISCH*
Barbara Wesel is DW's European correspondent in Brussels

Last weekend, British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson temporarily played the tough guy and hinted at a military option when he mentioned the idea of a no-fly zone over Aleppo. He did this under the influence of US Secretary of State John Kerry, who, at a recent meeting in London, had told of his frustration at yet another wasted round of talks with their Russian counterpart, the archcynic Sergey Lavrov.

It is understandable that these continued meetings with Russia's foreign minister would put the American in a militant mood. However, it is clear that neither the United States nor EU leaders are willing to start World War III because of the things happening in Aleppo. No one is going to take down Russian fighter jets from the skies above this Syrian city.

So, the only remaining option is to implement further sanctions - provided that there is to be further action at all. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his clan should be the targets initially. It is there that the British and French leaders, who are most vocal about their disgust and outrage, would get a chance to make up for what they have failed to do for years. The British and French can finally crack down on the cronies, the bank accounts, the real estate and the hidden billions of the Assad family. France has now announced that it will take the first steps. But British officials have been standing by and watching the activities of Assad's friends and fundraisers for years.

The most pressing and long-overdue sanction against a regime of war criminals in Damascus would be to cut off the support and supplies to the murderous dictator. Until they do this, Boris Johnson and his French counterpart, Jean-Marc Ayrault, should be more restrained.

Impose more sanctions!

The only way to take action is to impose more sanctions against Vladimir Putin. The Russian president's weakness is the economic situation in the country. At the moment things are abysmal, and this is not only because of the fall in oil prices but also a result of the existing economic sanctions that have been imposed by the EU and United States since Russia began interfering in Ukraine.

This is the only way that Europeans can effectively apply pressure Putin. For Germany this would initially mean putting the Nordstream gas pipeline project on hold. This is not the time to pursue business as usual with Russia's president. This is the time to show him that the European Union does not do business with war criminals.

Furthermore, other EU countries could contribute ideas on how to make it impossible for Russian banks, oligarchs and state institutions to work internationally. There is still a lot for room for improvement in this area. But to achieve this it is essential to have consensus among member states. Perhaps governmental leaders will be able to achieve such a consensus at the summit at the end of the week - but the signs don't look good.

Putin has been giving the EU and United States the runaround for months now. One round of negotiations on Syria after another leads to nothing. He makes humanitarian concessions that are either never adhered to or last only for a short time. He pretends to want to convince Assad to change course but wages war against the Syrian opposition and population at the same time. Peace by negotiation is not achievable under these circumstances. It is just empty talk. 

But Putin has been long since following a much more far-reaching strategy to weaken and divide his opponents. He has no interest in peace in Syria or in his international reputation. And he will always be able to find a few friends, such as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. Europe can only meet Putin with unity and toughness and hit him with his economic weaknesses. Anything else is an illusion.

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