Britain, France and Germany aim to persuade the European Union today (17 October) to condemn Russia’s devastating air campaign in Syria and pave the way for imposing more sanctions on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
The bloc also plans to continue pushing for humanitarian aid to reach the besieged city of Aleppo.
Struggling to help end Syria’s war, the EU is stepping up efforts to support the United States in its bid to stop the bombing of eastern Aleppo, where 275,000 people are trapped.
But it is split over strategy towards Russia, its biggest energy supplier.
EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg on Monday – after the United States held weekend talks in Lausanne and London – will voice their harshest criticism yet of Russian air strikes in eastern Aleppo that have destroyed hospitals and targeted an aid convoy. EU leaders meet on Thursday to discuss further steps.
“It is vital that we keep that pressure up,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said following his meeting in London on Sunday with US Secretary of State John Kerry, before heading to Luxembourg for the EU meeting.
“There are a lot of measures we’re proposing, to do with extra sanctions on the Syrian regime and their supporters, measures to bring those responsible for war crimes to the International Criminal Court,” said Johnson. The United States is also considering additional sanctions.
A draft of the diplomatic statement to be delivered on Monday says EU ministers will condemn the “catastrophic escalation” of the Syrian government offensive to capture the eastern zone of Aleppo, where 8,000 rebels are still holding out against Syrian, Russian and Iranian-backed forces.
They will say that air strikes on hospitals and civilians “may amount to war crimes”, calling on “Syria and its allies” to go to the International Criminal Court, according to a draft seen by Reuters that is still under discussion.
Diplomats say the European Union will also call for a ceasefire with an observation mission, a renewed push for peace talks to include EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and immediate access for an EU aid package announced on 2 October.
The European Union proposed a new humanitarian plan in coordination with the United Nations for the besieged half of the Syrian city of Aleppo yesterday (4 October), but said it required cooperation from all parties to the conflict.
But Britain and France, with the support of Germany, want to go further, pushing for economic sanctions on some 20 Syrians suspected of directing attacks on civilians.
They would be added to the EU’s existing sanctions list of some 200 Syrians. Sanctions already include an oil and arms embargo and a ban on dealing with the Syrian central bank.
Paris and London may push other EU leaders on Thursday to consider travel bans and asset freezes on as many as 12 Russians involved in the Syrian conflict.
However, that is not on the agenda for Monday and may be too much for Russia’s closest EU allies such as Greece, Cyprus and Hungary. They are worried about angering the Kremlin with talk of sanctions and putting peace talks further out of reach.
“Some governments are cautious about being tough on Russia,” said an EU diplomat. “But equally, they know that the EU is at risk of being seen to be doing nothing,” the diplomat said.
Any new measures must be agreed by all 28 EU governments.
While the discussions have taken on a new urgency after diplomatic efforts at the United Nations in New York failed to halt air strikes on eastern Aleppo, the European Union’s most pressing concern is to deliver water, medical aid and food.
The bloc, the biggest aid donor in the conflict, announced a new humanitarian plan on October 2 in coordination with the United Nations. It is in almost daily contact with charities to move in, but diplomats say the trucks cannot get through government checkpoints to eastern Aleppo from the western part of the city.
“There is no point-blank refusal, but drivers are asked for things they don’t have, like special driving licenses,” said one EU official. “We need a facilitation letter from the Syrian authorities.”