G7 ministers will press Russia to stop backing Syria

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 April, 2017, 11:23pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 April, 2017, 11:25pm

Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven industrialised nations met Monday to forge a response to the deadly chemical attack the West blames on the Syrian government, and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said they would consider imposing sanctions against Russian backers of President Bashar al-Assad.

G7 diplomats gathering in Lucca, Italy, hope to use outrage over the attack and support for the United States’ retaliatory missile strikes to push Russia to abandon Assad and join a new peace effort for Syria.

Speaking after meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Johnson said 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”.

He said Russia had a choice: to continue backing the “toxic” Assad regime, “or to work with the rest of the world to find a solution for Syria, a political solution”.

Last week’s nerve gas attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, which killed more than 80 people, stirred President Donald Trump into a massive U-turn and strike for the first time at Assad’s forces. US warships fired 59 cruise missiles at the Syrian air base from which the US believes the attack was launched.

Tillerson said the US is rededicating itself to hold to account “any and all” who commit crimes against innocent people.

The meeting in the Tuscan walled city of Lucca brings together the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Britain, Japan and Canada – as well as the US and current G7 president Italy.

Ahead of the full meeting, Tillerson held bilateral talks with G7 counterparts who included Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and Britain’s Johnson.

Tillerson also spoke by phone with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, whose government insists Assad should play no role in Syria’s future.

After meeting Tillerson, Japan’s Kishida said “Japan supports the US commitment in trying to take responsibility to prevent spread and use of chemical weapons and we confirmed Japan and the US will continue to work together.”

The G7 meeting comes as the US is sending a Navy carrier strike group toward the Korean Peninsula to provide a physical presence following North Korea’s persistent ballistic missile tests.

It is also taking place amid an ongoing terror threat that was underscored by the Palm Sunday bombing of Coptic churches in Egypt claimed by the Islamic State group, and another truck attack on European soil, this time in Stockholm, on Friday.

The US is fighting Islamic State group militants in Syria but had previously avoided striking government forces, largely out of concern about being pulled into a military conflict with Russia.

The chemical attack has sent a new chill through relations between the West and Moscow, which denies Syrian forces used chemical weapons, instead blaming Western-backed rebels.

Russia plans to put forward a proposal on Monday for an independent and impartial investigation of the attack, a spokesman for German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said in Berlin.

The spokesman, Martin Schaefer, said Germany viewed it as “a good and important sign”.

Russia was kicked out of the club of industrialised nations, formerly the G8, after its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and assistance for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Britain’s Johnson, who had been due to visit Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Moscow ahead of Monday’s G7 meeting, cancelled the trip at the last minute, saying the chemical attack had “changed the situation fundamentally”.

He said that instead he would work with the United States and other G7 nations “to build coordinated international support for a cease-fire on the ground and an intensified political process.”

Tillerson is due to travel to Russia after the G7 gathering, and Johnson said he will deliver a “clear and coordinated message to the Russians”.

Washington has sent mixed signals about whether it shares the determination of allies including Britain that Assad must be removed from power.

After the chemical attack, Trump said his attitude toward Assad “has changed very much” and Tillerson said “steps are underway” to organise a coalition to remove him from power.

Among European nations, there are differences. While Britain says Assad must go, Alfano was cautious on the issue, saying that decision should be up to the Syrians.

“I have to say, the Libya experiment did not go well. We are still paying the price,” Alfano said, referring to the lawlessness that has ensued since the killing of long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi and the subsequent flow of migrants to Europe via Italy.