EU ministers split on sanctions to pressure Russia over Syria course

EU foreign ministers met Monday to consider ways of ending the bloodshed in Syria, notably in the besieged city of Aleppo, but divisions emerged over the use of sanctions against Russia over its support for the Syrian regime.

The rebel-held section of Aleppo has faced intense airstrikes by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his ally Russia since a US-Russian-brokered truce collapsed last month.

Up to 300,000 civilians are thought to be trapped in Aleppo. Around 700 civilians, including 141 children, have been killed in and around the city since the ceasefire crumbled on September 19, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The crisis in Aleppo "shames humanity," British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said ahead of the ministers' talks, pointing the finger at the Assad regime and its "puppeteers," Russia and Iran.

"I appeal to the greatness of the Russian people to choose a different path and to go for peace and to get us back on the path of negotiations," he said, adding that the European Union would consider ways of putting pressure on the Syrian regime and its allies.

The ministers would "examine all the options," added French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

But several of his counterparts spoke out against imposing sanctions on Russia, while Berlin appeared divided over the issue.

"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 ahead of the Luxembourg talks.

In Berlin, however, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was understandable that "all options are being considered, including sanctions" against those carrying out or enabling violent acts or even war crimes.

Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek said his country could support sanctions against Russia, if Moscow was found to share the responsibility for what was happening in Aleppo.

The sanctions issue is expected to come up at an EU summit later this week, at which leaders had long planned a broader discussion on the bloc's relationship with Russia.

No member state had formally proposed sanctions against Russia, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said ahead of Monday's talks, while noting that there was a possibility of extending measures against the Syrian regime.

A list of 10 to 15 additional Syrians to target with sanctions was under consideration, an EU diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

The measure is largely seen as symbolic, however, with EU travel bans and asset freezes already in place on more than 200 people, including key figures in the Assad regime, and 70 firms or organizations.

Monday's talks follow a meeting on Saturday between US Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, followed by further discussions in London on Sunday.

The EU is not involved militarily in Syria, focusing instead on the provision of humanitarian aid and diplomatic efforts to reach a political solution to the conflict.

"We, as the European Union, have no button that we can press for this to stop," noted Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn.

Last update: Mon, 17/10/2016 - 16:48

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