Sunday

17th Feb 2019

EU tells Russia to 'cease' strikes on Syria rebels

  • Luxembourg: Putin shows little sign of ceding to EU demands (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The EU has said Russia “must cease” strikes on “moderate” Syria rebels and that its ally, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, must, sooner or later, go.

The joint statement was adopted by foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday (12 October).

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“The recent Russian military attacks that go beyond Dae'sh [another name for Islamic State] and other UN-designated terrorist groups, as well as on the moderate opposition, are of deep concern, and must cease immediately”, it says.

“This military escalation risks prolonging the conflict, undermining a political process, aggravating the humanitarian situation, and increasing radicalisation”.

It adds that Russia’s air strikes should be “closely coordinated” with a US-led anti-Islamic State coalition.

It also urges Russia to use its “influence” on Assad to “push for a reduction of violence” against civilians and “to encourage [his] constructive role in the process leading to a political transition”.

It doesn’t say when Assad should step down. But it says he must go sooner or later.

“There cannot be a lasting peace in Syria under the present leadership”, the text notes.

“The Assad regime bears the greatest responsibility for the 250,000 deaths of the conflict and the millions of displaced people”.

“Those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria must be held accountable [in international courts]”, it adds.

“As a consequence of its policies and actions, the Assad regime cannot be a partner in the fight against Dae'sh”.

Flexibility

Arriving in Luxembourg on Monday, the British foreign minister, Philip Hammond, told press: “We can be flexible about the manner of his [Assad’s] departure and we can be flexible about the timing … but if we try to work with Assad we will only drive the [moderate] opposition into the arms of Isil [annother name for Islamic State]”.

French Europe minister, Harlem Desir, said the post-war authorities in Syria cannot include Assad, but can include “elements of the current regime which aren’t implicated in crimes against the civilian population”.

Luxembourg’s Jean Assleborn, whose country is chairing the EU presidency, warned: “we cannot create a vacuum [of power in Syria]".

Slovakia’s Miroslav Lajcak, who used to head the EU foreign service’s Russia department, added: “We shouldn’t base our strategy on wishful thinking, but on realities. It’s not about who we like or don’t like, it’s about who’s relevant, and, as of today, he [Assad] is definitely relevant”.

Poland's Grzegorz Schetyna said the EU statement was deliberately vague on Assad's future so that all EU states could sign up to it

The Danish foreign minister, Kristian Jensen, noted that Russia is “part of the problem”.

But he added: “We hope Russia will be part of that [US-led] coalition”.

Belgium, Lithuania, and Sweden also described Russia’s intervention as “worrying”. The EU foreign service chief, Federica Mogherini, called it a “game-changer”.

“It has to be coordinated otherwise it risks being extremely dangerous”, she added, on the risk of an accidental military clash between British, French, US, and Russian forces in the region.

Putin’s ‘good will’

The EU statement said Russia must also cease “violations of the sovereign airspace of neighbouring countries”, after its planes, on three occassions last week, entered the airspace of Nato member Turkey.

But for his part, the Russian leader, in an interview with the Rossiya-1 TV channel on Sunday, showed no sign of bowing to Western demands.

He said he forewarned Western powers of his military operation out of “good will”, even though they “never inform us” of what they’re going to do.

He noted “some progress has been made” in creating “working groups” with Israel, Turkey, and the US “so as to avoid incidents”.

He also boasted of Russia’s use of conventional cruise missiles to strike targets in Syria from the Caspian Sea.

He said the “cutting-edge, high-precision weapons” crossed “two countries [Iran and Iraq] … made 147 turns along the route and flew at a height of between 80 and 1,300 metres” at the speed of a “jet aircraft”.

He added, in a thinly veiled threat to Nato powers, that “they have seen … now that Russia is ready to use them if this is in the interests of our country and people”.

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