G7 states reach no deal on UK call for further Syria and Russia sanctions

Before the two-day meeting in Italy, British foreign secretary Boris Johnson had said he wanted to discuss imposing fresh sanctions over last week’s chemical weapons attack by the Syrian air force on a rebel-held area.

Foreign ministers – including UAE Minister for Foreign Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed – and their staff attend a meeting of foreign ministers of the G7 in Lucca, Italy on April 11, 2017. Riccardo Dalle Luche / ANSA via AP
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LUCCA, ITALY // Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) major industrialised nations reached no agreement on a British suggestion that sanctions be tightened against Syria and Russia.

Before the two-day meeting, British foreign secretary Boris Johnson had said he wanted to discuss imposing fresh sanctions over last week’s chemical weapons attack by the Syrian air force on a rebel-held area. Western countries have placed the blame for the attack, which killed 87 people, squarely on Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. He has denied involvement and Russia, which is backing the Damascus government in its six-year-old war with rebels, has stood firmly by its ally.

But Italy, which hosted the G7 gathering in Tuscany, said the idea did not win broad support. “There is no consensus at this time for new sanctions as an efficient method to reach our goal,” foreign minister Angelino Alfano said.

“The position of the G7 is very clear. We support the sanctions that have already been introduced. We must have a dialogue with Russia. We must not push Russia into a corner.”

Italian officials estimate that sanctions imposed on Russia after its 2014 annexation of Crimea have cost Italy some four billion euros in lost business, and Rome has resisted previous attempts to impose fresh penalties on Moscow.

French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault suggested the question was given little attention by the other foreign ministers from the United States, Germany, Canada, Italy, France and Japan. “The question wasn’t mentioned by anyone, except Boris Johnson, but we didn’t talk about it any further,” Mr Ayrault said.

Others argued for a more conciliatory approach. German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel said Russia, and Mr Al Assad’s other ally, Iran, must be involved in any peace process.

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

The British foreign secretary put a positive spin on what looked like a rebuff, saying the G7 gathering had agreed to support further sanctions if evidence could be gathered against those involved in last week’s poison gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun, a town in Idlib province. Britain and its European partners would await the findings of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), he said.

“There was a very wide measure of agreement last night that ... if we can show complicity by those Russian officers who are helping the Syrian military operation, then they should also be sanctionable as well,” he told the BBC.

However, there was no evidence that Russia knew of plans for a gas attack, he added.

“Did they know that Assad was going to unleash chemical weapons? We have no evidence for that, we don’t know whether the Russians were involved at all,” Mr Johnson told Sky News.

“It may very well be that they (Russia) have simply been betrayed by their client, by the guy they have been backing.”

* Reuters