Tuesday

15th Oct 2019

US and France keen to mute EU critics on Syria

The US, France, Germany and the UK will try to quiet down EU critics of Syria intervention at a foreign ministers' meeting in Vilnius on Friday (6 September) and Saturday.

The EU event comes after pro-intervention countries faced hostility from Russia and China at a G20 summit in St Petersburg on Thursday.

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  • Kerry and EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, who will chair Friday's meeting (Photo: state.gov)

French leader Francois Hollande said in Russia "it's really important that the Europeans here at the G20 are on the same page," while calling for a St Petersburg statement that blamed Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for a chemical weapons attack on 21 August.

British PM David Cameron said he had new forensic evidence that sarin gas was used.

But Italian leader Enrico Letta noted that Italy will not take part in action without a UN mandate. He also tweeted after a G20 dinner that "the evening session … confirmed the divisions on Syria."

The anti-Assad military coalition contains Australia, France, Turkey and the US.

The US still needs Congress' say-so and France might call a vote in the Assemblee nationale, but one EU source told this website: "We expect the fireworks [military strikes] to start very soon."

British opposition MPs have blocked UK participation.

But the British foreign minister, William Hague, will try to build political support for action among EU colleagues in Lithuania.

Germany has also said it will not take part, due to lack of military resources.

But France says that Germany's disclosure of new intelligence, on Wednesday, blaming al-Assad for the attack, shows that Berlin backs its point of view.

The EU invited US secretary of state John Kerry to Vilnius to talk about Syria, Egypt and the Middle East Peace Process before the Syria chemical crisis.

Pro-intervention countries hope his message will help to get smaller, US-friendly EU states on board.

The Netherlands, like Italy, has also said there should be no strikes without a UN mandate, but most EU members have stayed quiet for now.

An EU source said: "Some member states are very sensitive to what the US has to say."

He noted: "What would be extremely useful is that, if the strikes take place, afterwards there is unanimous language coming from EU countries in support of what is being done. But you can't ask people to sign a blank cheque beforehand."

Another EU source noted: "What they [pro-intervention countries] are hoping for is dignified silence after the strikes. Nobody rocking the boat. But many member states will wait and see what the consequences of the strikes are before they speak out. There are fears that intervention could make things worse."

Meanwhile, Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu will not be in Vilnius.

Ministers from EU candidate countries were in the past invited to foreign policy meetings.

But the practice was put on ice under last year's Cypriot EU presidency due to the frozen conflict between Cyprus and Turkey.

Remarking on the EU's internal debate on Syria, a Turkish source noted: "Once again, the EU has shown that where the Middle East is concerned, it is incapable of arriving at a common position."

Ukraine

For its part, the Lithuanian EU presidency will try to make sure EU ministers do not neglect Ukraine.

The Vilnius agenda also includes the Eastern Partnership, an EU policy on building closer ties with former Soviet nations.

Russia has recently put pressure on Armenia, Moldova and Ukraine not to conclude EU political association and free trade pacts at a summit with EU leaders in November.

Asked by this website if the subject might slip off the agenda due to Syria, Elmar Brok, a German centre-right MEP who chairs parliament's foreign affairs committee and who is at the Vilnius event, said: "No. We are in Vilnius, after all. You can be sure the Lithuanians, and some other eastern European countries, will not let us forget about that."

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