The European Union has strongly condemned Russia for causing “untold suffering” through its bombardment of the Syrian city of Aleppo, but stopped short of considering new sanctions on Moscow.
“Since the beginning of the offensive by the regime and its allies, notably Russia, the intensity and scale of the aerial bombardment of eastern Aleppo is clearly disproportionate,” European Union foreign ministers said in a statement after talks in Luxembourg on Monday.
“The deliberate targeting of hospitals, medical personnel, schools and essential infrastructure, as well as the use of barrel bombs, cluster bombs, and chemical weapons, constitute a catastrophic escalation of the conflict … and may amount to war crimes,” they said.
— Federica Mogherini (@FedericaMog) October 17, 2016
The bloc’s foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini said that they are not considering sanctions against Russia, but further measures against its ally Damascus are possible.
“This has not been proposed by any member state,” Mogherini said as she arrived for the meeting of 28 European Union ministers dominated by the Syrian crisis when asked about steps against Moscow.
“But we have sanctions on the Syrian regime … and there are discussions on that, for sure, [expanding] that could be possible,” added Mogherini, the former Italian foreign minister.
Mogherini said she was “proud” the EU was not a military power party to the conflict, and so it could focus instead on getting those that were to agree a ceasefire, humanitarian help and a lasting political solution.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier insisted sanctions would not help improve the plight of civilians in Aleppo.
“I am not the only one who is rather sceptical with a view to sanctions,” he said, adding that talks “are still the best chance”.
Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn added: “I do not think it would be fruitful if we discuss now for hours if and how and when we are going to decide on sanctions against Russia.
“Firstly, we will not find a consensus and secondly I believe as well that it is not the right time and it would be counter-productive,” he said.
Austria, a transit point for Russian gas flows to Europe, also voiced its opposition on Monday.
“The idea to have additional sanctions against Russia would be wrong,” Austria’s Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz told reporters. “We do not need a further escalation,” he said.
Keeping pressure on Assad
But others said it was imperative to increase the pressure on Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in order to halt the carnage.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the ministers would “examine all the options to put much stronger pressure on the regime of Bashar al-Assad and his allies.
“The pressure [on Russia] must be strong,” he said.
Spain, which co-sponsored with France last week’s vetoed UN resolution for a ceasefire in Aleppo, would back Russian sanctions if they helped “bring Russia’s position closer to ours” acting Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said.
Fresh “brainstorming” talks held on Saturday in Lausanne, Switzerland, with the main players in Syria’s conflict including Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, failed to produce any breakthrough.
The EU already has extensive sanctions in place against Syria, including oil and arms embargoes, plus restrictions on more than 200 individuals and 70 entities.
With no military presence in the Syria conflict, it is searching for a role as peacemaker and may try to lead a process to bring regional powers including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey to talks on a final peace settlement, if a ceasefire can be agreed.
In the latest fighting, at least 14 civilians were killed in air strikes on Aleppo on Monday, bringing to 47 the number killed in the past 24 hours.
Russia said on Monday its forces and Syrian regime troops would briefly halt fire in Aleppo on Thursday, as criticism mounted of the ferocious Moscow-backed assault on the Syrian city.
“We have taken a decision not to waste time and to introduce ‘humanitarian pauses’, mainly for the free passage of civilians, evacuation of the sick and wounded and withdrawal of fighters,” senior Russian military officer Sergei Rudskoi said at a press briefing.
The ceasefire would run from 8am to 4pm local time (05:00 GMT to 13:00 GMT) “in the area of Aleppo”, Rudskoi said.
The conflict in Syria has left nearly 400,000 people dead according to UN estimates and displaced half the population, many of whom have fled the country.