European Diplomats Poised to Directly Blame Russia for Aleppo Siege

A draft statement, obtained by Foreign Policy, for the first time explicitly calls out Moscow for its role in the devastating Syrian bombing campaign.

ALEPPO, SYRIA - OCTOBER 12: Collapsed buildings are seen after the war crafts belonging to the Russian Army carried out airstrike on a residential area in Aleppo, Syria on October 12, 2016. It is reported that dead and wounded after the attack.
 (Photo by Jawad al Rifai/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - OCTOBER 12: Collapsed buildings are seen after the war crafts belonging to the Russian Army carried out airstrike on a residential area in Aleppo, Syria on October 12, 2016. It is reported that dead and wounded after the attack. (Photo by Jawad al Rifai/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Overcoming a wave of reluctance to antagonize Moscow, European Union foreign ministers are planning to formally and explicitly admonish Russia for supporting the Syrian government’s deadly assault on Aleppo, an attack that “may amount to war crimes,” diplomats tell Foreign Policy.

The European ministers, who will meet meet on Monday in Luxembourg, are also expected to support the imposition of sanctions on as many as 20 Syrian government officials who have had a role in the bombardment.

An earlier draft of the EU statement did not include a direct reference to Russia, but has been added at the insistence of the French, British and German governments. The move comes as Secretary of State John Kerry mounts a new diplomatic push to pursue a ceasefire for the besieged city at a meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland on Saturday that includes representatives of Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

“Since the beginning of the offensive by the regime and its allies, notably Russia, the intensity and scale of the aerial bombardment of eastern Aleppo is clearly disproportionate,” reads a draft joint statement obtained by FP. “The escalating violence in Aleppo is causing untold and unacceptable suffering for thousands of its inhabitants.”

Several EU countries with political or business ties to Russia opposed efforts to explicitly call out Moscow, including Greece, Spain, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Cyprus. But proponents of the more pointed language prevailed, just as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad vowed to “clean” the divided city of Aleppo, prompting fears of more bloody atrocities.

Assad’s military, with aerial support by Russian warplanes, have killed more than 150 people in rebel-held eastern Aleppo this week, according to rescue workers.

“Given Russia’s brutal onslaught against Syrian civilians, abetted by Assad and Hezbollah, it is hardly surprising that the EU would, as a first step, respond so strongly,” one European diplomat told FP.

The bloc of Central and Southern European countries did succeed in slowing down an effort to sanction up to 13 Russian officials for the Aleppo siege, a move that Britain, France and Germany were considering, according to a Financial Times report on Wednesday. The governments are not expected to impose punitive economic measures on Russia during the Monday summit.

When asked about potential U.S. sanctions, a senior State Department official told FP: “We’ve long held that sanctions are best utilized when they are coordinated with our partners in Europe and beyond” that enable coordination of harsher or looser sanctions as conditions require. “But no decisions have been made,” the official added.

The current text of the joint statement came out of a meeting Friday in Brussels of the EU’s Political and Security Committee, and remains subject to changes ahead of the Monday meeting of ministers. The plans to sanction up to 20 Syrian officials was first reported by ReutersThe ministers are not expected to reach an agreement on a list of names of Syrian officials, leaving that decision for technocrats to resolve on a later date.

The mention of “war crimes” by EU ministers echoes a remark by Kerry that Assad and Russia should face a war crimes investigation. Former U.S. officials said it was important that Washington and Brussels remain united in their messaging on Syria.

“As the U.S. appears to be reviewing its options, it’s important to send a message that Russia could face costs for its actions,” said Jeff Rathke, a former State Department official who focuses on Europe at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “So the more clear Europe is about a hardening line, the better.”

The move also comes as President Barack Obama weighed a decision to use military force against Damascus at a meeting of the National Security Council on Friday. U.S. officials have repeatedly said that there is no military solution to the war in Syria.

A Western official on Friday said that U.S. and European militaries have little room to maneuver in a way that would help end the conflict in Syria. Russian forces there, and especially Russian-made air defense systems, have made it much riskier for the United States to intervene, even if it wished.

“Now that the Russians are there, our options are quite limited,” the diplomat said.  “What the Middle East is seeing right now is that the regime won’t fall, that the Russians and Iranians are ready to go to any length in order to support the regime.”

FP’s chief national security reporter Dan De Luce contributed  to this report. 

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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