G-7 ministers appeal to Russia on Syria but reject sanctions

By Jill Lawless and Colleen Barry / Associated Press

LUCCA, Italy — The Group of Seven industrialized nations on Tuesday urged Russia to pressure the Syrian government to end the six-year civil war, but rejected a British call to impose new sanctions on Moscow over its support of President Bashar Assad.

Foreign ministers from the seven countries said Moscow must change its attitude to Assad if there is to be hope of ending the brutal conflict that has destabilized the Middle East, driven millions to escape Syria and further frayed relations between the West and Russia.

“Russia can be a part of that future and play an important role,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.

Or, he added, it could maintain its alliance with Syria, Iran and militant group Hezbollah, “which we believe is not going to serve Russia’s interests’ longer term.”

Tillerson flew straight from the summit in Italy to Moscow, carrying the G-7’s strong desire for a new start in Syria, but few concrete proposals to make it happen.

The G-7 blames Assad’s military for a deadly chemical attack last week that killed more than 80 people. Ministers meeting in the walled Tuscan city of Lucca strongly supported U.S. missile strikes that targeted a Syrian air base believed to have been used to launch the attack. But they were divided about how to deal with Syria, and Moscow.

Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano, who hosted the G-7 gathering, said “there is no consensus for further new sanctions.”

“We must have a dialogue with Russia,” he said. “We must not push Russia into a corner.”

Instead of sanctions, the meeting’s final communique called for an investigation by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to determine who was responsible for the “war crime.” The U.S. and Britain say there is little doubt Assad’s forces are culpable.

The group’s stance was a rebuff to British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who said Monday the G-7 was considering new sanctions on Russian military figures to press Moscow to end military support for the “toxic” Assad government. U.S. officials in Washington have also raised that prospect.

Others argued for a more conciliatory approach. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said Russia, and Assad ally Iran, must be involved in any peace process to end Syria’s six-year civil war.

“Not everyone may like it, but without Moscow and without Tehran there will be no solution for Syria,” he said.

Johnson put a positive spin on the outcome, saying there could still be sanctions on Russian military officers if an independent investigation into the chemical attack identifies perpetrators.

The G-7 members — Germany, France, Britain, Canada, Japan and current president Italy, as well as the U.S. — are also trying to grasp what the U.S. administration’s foreign policy is, amid conflicting signals from Washington.

Tillerson’s trip comes after an American official said the U.S. has drawn a preliminary conclusion that Russia knew in advance of the chemical attack — an allegation that heightens already acute tensions between Washington and Moscow.

Until Trump ordered U.S. missile strikes in response to the April 4 nerve gas attack, the president had focused on defeating the Islamic State group and had shown no appetite for challenging Assad — and, by extension, his Russian supporter President Vladimir Putin.

After the chemical attack, Trump said his attitude toward Assad “has changed very much” and Tillerson said “steps are underway” to organize a coalition to remove him from power. But Tillerson also said that the top U.S. priority in the region remains the defeat of Islamic State militants.

On Monday Tillerson raised fresh expectations for aggressive U.S. action — and not only in Syria — as he visited the site of a World War II Nazi massacre in central Italy, saying the U.S. would hold to account “all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.”

Though such comments hint at a more activist U.S. foreign policy focused on preventing humanitarian atrocities, Trump’s administration has generally downplayed human rights concerns while promoting an “America First” strategy de-emphasizing the concerns of foreign nations.

Uncertainty about objectives persisted as Tillerson met Tuesday on the sidelines of the Lucca meeting with diplomats from “like-minded” countries on Syria, including Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as G-7 members.

The U.S. hopes the regional countries can help ensure security and stability in Syria after the Islamic State group is defeated.

The G-7 members broadly agree that Assad should go — but not necessarily when, or how. European leaders are especially conscious of the disaster in Libya, where an internationally backed ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi was followed by a descent into chaos and factional fighting.

Tillerson said Tuesday that “It is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end.”

“But the question of how that ends and the transition itself could be very important in our view to the durability, the stability inside of a unified Syria.

“That’s why we are not presupposing how that occurs,” Tillerson added.

Although Syria dominated discussion, the diplomats met as the United States is sending a Navy carrier strike group toward the Korean Peninsula in a show of strength following North Korea’s persistent ballistic missile tests.

The G-7 urged North Korea to refrain from further “destabilizing or provocative actions” and abandon its nuclear weapons program — a call likely to fall on deaf ears.

Barry reported from Milan. Josh Lederman in Lucca and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

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