A downbeat Donald Tusk last night (15 December) admitted that the European Union was powerless to stop Russian-backed bloodshed in the Syrian city of Aleppo.
The European Council President said, “We are not as effective as we would like to be but we are not indifferent to the suffering of people in Syria.”
“We are not effective enough. I know who is effective enough…at bombing,” he added, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was pivotal in the taking of Aleppo.
Tusk confessed that a major obstacle to hitting Russia with economic sanctions was the uncertainty caused by the election of US President Donald Trump.
“We have to wait for the formal declarations of the new president,” he said.
The two leaders wielding the most influence over the outcome of today’s European Council aren’t even from the EU. The spectre of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump loomed large over the summit in Brussels.
EU leaders did not discuss the possibility of economic sanctions for its part in the atrocities committed in Aleppo.
Even though a French-German effort to get sanctions on Russia failed two months ago, at the October summit, Tusk claimed heads of state and government had hardened their stance on Russia.
“Our colleagues, the leaders today were more radical, tougher than they were three months ago, but we didn’t discuss sanctions,” he said.
EU sanctions require unanimous support from all member states. Spain and Italy were among the countries who opposed the measures in October.
Separate sanctions against Russia for the annexation of Crimea were extended by six months. Donald Trump becomes US President on 20 January 2017. The possibility of renewing them for a year was mooted, but discarded.
Tusk said the Crimea sanctions were simpler to achieve because they were based around the Minsk Agreement brokered by France and Germany in the capital of Belarus.
EU heads of state and government agreed tonight (15 December) to roll over sanctions against Russia over its actions in the Ukraine for a further six months, ticking off one element of an otherwise problematic and late-running summit.
Flanked by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico, Tusk called for the opening of United Nations supervised humanitarian corridors for aid and the evacuation of people to and from Aleppo.
The UN Security Council will meet behind closed doors in New York on Friday (9 December) to discuss the crisis in Aleppo after civilians began evacuating and Syrian forces moved to assert full control over the city.
“We have achieved some results, including a real chance to establish safe corridors,” Tusk said before adding in another swipe at Putin, “at least with Iran… This is what we can offer.”
“It is impossible to stop this conflict by force. The EU has no intention and no capacity to use this kind of methods,” the former Polish prime minister told reporters at the end of the summit of EU leaders.
Please stop blaming the EU
“Please stop blaming the EU, he said resignedly, “because we are not the reason we have seen this tragedy today.”
Tusk, who had invited the mayor of Eastern Aleppo to address leaders, said that Europe was the biggest and first provider of humanitarian support to the Syrian population.
“The voice of the people of Aleppo was heard, at least symbolically,” Tusk said.
But there were few differences between the European Council conclusions of October and last night. Both condemn Russia and both reserve the right to consider all options in responding to the atrocities in Syria.
They differ on the setting out of four emergency measures to evacuate inhabitants of eastern Aleppo, give immediate aid and protection to them and protect hospitals, as well as a demand for the return of international humanitarian law.
“The European Council strongly condemns the continued assault on Aleppo by the Syrian regime and its allies, notably Russia and Iran, including the deliberate targeting of civilians and hospitals,” the conclusions agreed by EU leaders read last night.
Angela Merkel said, “The regime using brutal violence a with the help of Russia has gained the upper hand. I don’t believe the solution can be a purely military one.”
She also said the leaders did not exclude imposing sanctions against Russia in the future for its actions in Syria.
French President Francois Hollande accused Russia of “making commitments that it is not keeping” urged Moscow and Tehran to “take the responsibility for this extremely serious situation”.
Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was asked about Spain’s reluctance to adopt new sanctions against Russia over Syria.
“Today’s statement is forceful,” he said, “We are in favour of the consensus.”
Mayor of Eastern Aleppo Brita Hagi Hassan said at of the summit, “The 50,000 citizens of eastern Aleppo are only waiting for their deaths after the failure of the international community.”
“The mayor said we can’t bring back those who have lost but we can save those that remain and that is what we must now do,” said UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who pledged Britain would offer £20 million (€23.85 million) worth of practical support for the most vulnerable.
EU leaders met in Brussels on Thursday (15 December) for a one-day summit focussing on migration, security and Brexit.