Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) major industrialised nations meeting in Italy are looking to put pressure on Russia to break its ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Calling last week’s US strike on a Syrian air base a “game changer”, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on Monday said support for the Syrian president “was toxifying the reputation of Russia” and suggested sanctions could be imposed on Moscow if it refused to change course.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is due to travel to Moscow on Tuesday at the end of the two-day gathering in the Tuscan city of Lucca with his Italian, German, French, British, Japanese and Canadian counterparts.
“What we’re trying to do is to give Rex Tillerson the clearest possible mandate from us as the West, the UK, all our allies here, to say to the Russians ‘this is your choice: stick with that guy, stick with that tyrant, or work with us to find a better solution’,” Johnson said after meeting Tillerson.
US sends mixed signals about strategy for Syria
The meeting comes after a suspected chemical attack on a rebel-held Syrian town that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said killed 87 people.
It prompted the US to for the first time directly intervene against the Assad government which it has blamed for the attack .
Russia has rejected accusations that Assad used chemical arms against his own people and has said it will not cut its ties with Assad, who has been locked in a six-year-old civil war that has devastated Syria and displaced half its population.
“Returning to pseudo-attempts to resolve the crisis by repeating mantras that Assad must step down cannot help sort things out,” Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said on Monday.
Also on Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa May and US President Donald Trump agreed in a phone call that a “window of opportunity” exists to convince Moscow to end its support for the Syrian president.
“The prime minister and the president agreed that a window of opportunity now exists in which to persuade Russia that its alliance with Assad is no longer in its strategic interest,” a spokeswoman for May’s Downing Street office said.
Britain said it “fully supported” the US strikes.
In their phone call on the eve of Tillerson’s visit, Trump and May said it “provides an opportunity to make progress towards a solution which will deliver a lasting political settlement”.
The Syrian government has denied it was behind the April 4 attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.
Johnson said he was keen to seen further sanctions imposed on both Syrian and Russian “military figures”.
Speaking to reporters in France, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country was also ready to stiffen sanctions on Moscow.
Tillerson said at the weekend the main priority for the US was the defeat of one of Assad’s main foes, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and it is unclear how far he will want to push the Russians on Tuesday.
Looking to build their case against Assad, Italy has invited the foreign ministers from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Qatar to sit down with the G7 group on Tuesday to discuss Syria. All oppose Assad’s rule.
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Source: News agencies