LUXEMBOURG: European Union foreign ministers threatened on Monday new sanctions on Syria over what the West says were chemical attacks on its own people, but held off from joining expected new US punitive measures against Russia.
After Britain and France joined the United States in missile salvoes meant to knock out Syrian chemical arms facilities, EU foreign ministers eyed steps to deepen the isolation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“The European Union will continue to consider further restrictive measures against Syria as long as the repression continues,” all 28 foreign ministers said in a statement after their talks in Luxembourg, referring to economic sanctions.
They also endorsed the US, British and French air strikes carried out on Saturday that Western powers said were a response to an April 7 poison gas attack on the rebel enclave of Douma and were seen as a way to stop the use of chemical weapons.
“It is very important to stress (the strikes are) not an attempt to change the tide of the war in Syria or to have a regime change,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told reporters on arrival at the meeting.
“I’m afraid the Syrian war will go on in its horrible, miserable way. But it was the world saying that we’ve had enough of the use of chemical weapons,” he said.
Any new sanctions on Assad would build on a series of such EU measures since 2011, ranging from an arms embargo and a ban on dealings with the Syrian central bank to travel bans and asset freezes on Syrian officials, military, business people and scientists accused of developing chemical weapons.
But EU diplomats said there was no discussion on Monday to target Russian military figures who, along with Iran, have allowed Assad to regain rebel-held territory in Syria’s seven-year war and who the West accuse of war crimes arising from aerial bombardments and gas attacks on civilians and hospitals.
The United States is due to announce new economic sanctions on Russia aimed at companies it alleges were dealing with equipment related to chemical weapons, according to US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. However, EU diplomats cautioned that until European governments had more idea of what the United States was planning, it was not possible to quickly follow suit. In the past, EU measures have sometimes come months after Washington’s.
Russia is Europe’s biggest gas supplier and, while the EU has imposed significant sanctions on Moscow’s financial, energy and defence sectors over the crisis in Ukraine, close ties between Russia and some EU members complicate discussions about new punitive measures. Foreign ministers, in their statement, did single out Russia and Iran, as well as Turkey, for blame, calling for an end to the war and humanitarian access to all besieged areas, saying 13.1 million people were in need of assistance, many trapped.
“We have to keep pushing to get a ceasefire and humanitarian aid through the (United Nations) Security Council and eventually a peace process,” Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok told reporters in Luxembourg.
“The only solution is a peace process through the Security Council,” said Blok, who met his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Friday.
Within the EU, which is due to hold an international donor conference for Syria next week, most governments now agree that Assad cannot continue as president for peace talks to succeed.
“There will be a solution involving everyone who has influence on the region,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in Luxembourg. “Nobody can imagine someone who uses chemical weapons against his own people to be part of this solution.”