EU mulls more Syria sanctions as political efforts falter

AP , Monday 17 Oct 2016

Members of the Syrian Civil Defence, known as the White Helmets, search for victims amid the rubble of a destroyed building following reported air strikes in the rebel-held Qatarji neighbourhood of the northern city of Aleppo, on October 17, 2016 (Photo: AFP)

European Union foreign ministers debated Monday whether to extend sanctions against the Syrian regime as political efforts to secure a cease-fire and access for humanitarian aid falter.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the ministers might add more Syrians accused of rights abuses or war crimes to the sanctions list, saying "for sure, that could be possible."

But she said no EU country has raised the idea of imposing sanctions on Russia, despite its support for President Bashar Assad in his offensive on the besieged city of Aleppo.

Talks involving Russia, the U.S. and other Western powers over the weekend failed to secure any breakthrough likely to lead to a cease-fire or open up access for humanitarian aid.

The EU sanctions are likely to include travel bans and a freeze of assets belonging to political figures and top military brass accused of crimes. EU officials have said evidence would also be collected for possible use in trials at the International Criminal Court.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the ministers, meeting in Luxembourg, will discuss ways to maintain pressure on Syria, Russia, but also Iran.

"The future salvation of Aleppo lies really with the Assad regime and above all with the Russians. It's up to them to pull the plug on this thing, to see sense," he told reporters.

France's foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said diplomatic efforts are blocked, and that Russia is locked in "the logic of destruction, alongside the Assad regime."

He likened the attacks on Aleppo to Russia's destruction of the Chechen capital Grozny in 1999 and 2000.

"Everything possible must be done to stop the bombing and allow humanitarian aid ... to get to the population," Ayrault said.

But like the major powers directly involved in Syria talks, EU countries are divided over the best way ahead.

"At present, I don't see how sanctions with a possible long-term effect are supposed to contribute to improving supplies to the civilian population," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said. "So I am not the only one who, in this case, is rather skeptical about sanctions."

Hungary's foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, said any outright EU condemnation of Russia would be "imbalanced" and not help resolve the Syrian conflict.

Szijjarto said the EU should also condemn the actions of terrorist groups there and try to foster the chances of agreement between the Americans and the Russians.

EU sanctions on Syria were extended at the end of May until June 2017.

More than 200 people and 70 entities including companies and associations are targeted by a travel ban and an asset freeze over the violent repression of civilians.

Other measures include an oil embargo, restrictions on certain investments, a freeze on Syrian central bank assets in the EU, and export restrictions.

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