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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

G7 Fails To Agree On New Russian Sanctions: US, UK Push Rejected By Europe

While eager to show a united front against Russia and Syria, G7 foreign ministers meeting in Italy again failed to reach an agreement over new sanctions against the two nations as a British plan to impose targeted sanctions on military personnel in Russia and Syria, supported by the US, was rejected by European allies.

"There is no consensus on additional new sanctions," Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson spearheaded the drive at the G7 for punitive measures against Moscow, but could not win the full-throated backing he wanted from Germany, Italy or the wider European Union. Officials tried to play down the failure to win more vocal support for sanctions, saying gaining backing from the Germans and Italians was always likely to prove difficult.

According to the Independent, British officials insisted that targeted sanctions are still on the table, but that moving forward with them would have to wait for a full investigation into the attack which killed scores in the rebel-held village of Khan Sheikhoun.

Ahead of Rex Tillerson's trip to Russia to try to persuade Putin to abandon his Syrian ally Assad, foreign ministers were seeking a common position on the Syrian conflict.  And while the nations agreed there was no solution to the Syria crisis with President Assad in power, BBC reported that a UK proposal to target sanctions at senior military leaders were sidelined.

Italian foreign minister Angelino Alfano - hosting the G7 talks - said ministers wanted to engage with Russia to put pressure on President Assad, adding that "we must not push Russia into a corner". "We think the Russians have the leverage that is needed to put pressure on Assad and to get him to observe the commitments with regard to the ceasefire," he added.

Speaking after the meeting, Tillerson denounced Russia's "failure" to ensure the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria and said it had not made enough progress in peace talks.

Tillerson said that Russia had failed to uphold commitments it made in 2013 to guarantee the Syrian regime got rid of chemical weapons.

"These agreements stipulated Russia, as the guarantor of a Syria free of chemical weapons, would locate, secure, and destroy all such armaments in Syria. Stockpiles and continued use, demonstrate that Russia has failed in its responsibility to deliver on its 2013 commitment," he said. "It is unclear whether Russia failed to take this obligation seriously or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement."

Tillerson also laid down an ultimatum for Russia, according to CNN, saying that Moscow must think about whether to remain an ally with the Assad regime, the Iranians and Hezbollah.

"Is that a long term alliance that serves Russia's interests? Or would Russia prefer to realign with the United States, with other Western countries and Middle East countries that are seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis?"

He also said that Russian-brokered talks in Astana had "not produced much progress," adding that he had hope that a process underway in Geneva over Syria's political future would be fruitful. "And our hope is Bashar al-Assad will not be part of that future," he said, without explicitly calling for Assad's removal.

"In terms of the future of Bashar al-Assad, it is important to us that we undertake a political process that leads to the final conclusion of how Syria will be governed. It is our policy for a unified Syria that is governed by the people of Syria. I think it is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end," he said.

* * *

After the meeting, Tillerson will head to Moscow for talks on Syria later on Tuesday, hoping to persuade the Russians that they have an unreliable ally in President Assad; he won't succeed.

Still, the fact that Rex Tillerson's visit to Moscow is happening at all is telling. Russia reacted angrily to last week's US missile strike on Syria, condemning it as an "act of aggression". Yet Moscow is happy to host the US secretary of state. He'll meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and a meeting with President Putin cannot be ruled out.

That said, history shows that Moscow does not take well to threats or ultimatums, so if Tillerson thinks he can weaken Moscow's support for President Assad, he may need to re-think. The Syrian president is Russia's key military ally in the Middle East, and has been for generations. Russia has invested heavily - militarily, politically and financially - to keep him in power.

Not helping the lack of a "united front", there have been mixed messages from the US on its priorities in Syria. Tillerson said on Sunday that there had been "no change to our military posture" in Syria following the US airbase strike and that Washington's "first priority" was to defeat so-called Islamic State (IS). Those comments came a day after the US's ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley spoke about the removal of President Assad, saying: "In no way do we see peace in that area with Assad as the head of the Syrian government."

There was further confusion on Monday when Tillerson spoke in public about an interventionist approach, saying: "We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world."

Hours later, White House press secretary Sean Spicer suggested Mr Trump would act against Syria not just if it used chemical munitions. "If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president," Mr Spicer said in his daily briefing. The White House later said Mr Spicer had meant to refer to barrel bombs containing "industrial chemicals."

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