British foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s call for sanctions against Russia, following Assad’s chemical attack on Syria, has been rejected by the other G7 foreign ministers. The EU and Germany were particularly “cool” on the idea. 

At the G7 summit in Lucca, Tuscany, the foreign ministers stressed the need to take certain measures after a proper investigation is concluded and weren’t willing to impose any sanctions on Russia unless there is strong evidence against Assad’s chemical attack. Johnson arrived in Tuscany with the proposal to impose targeted sanctions against senior Russian officers affiliated with Assad’s regime and other Syrian officials. A joint statement from Theresa May and Donald Trump advocating Russia’s rejection of support for Assad and pushing for sanctions, was not especially welcome at the G7.

May and Trump who had a telephone conversation on Monday night, ahead of the G7 talks in Italy, agreed that it was possible for Russia to terminate its support for Assad and that its alliance with the Syrian dictator was “no longer in its strategic interest.” 

Johnson, arriving at the summit, also warned Russia and said that the G7 “will be discussing the possibility of further sanctions, certainly on some of the Syrian military figures, and indeed on some of the Russian military figures who have been involved in co-ordinating the Syrian military efforts and are thereby contaminated by the appalling behaviour of the Assad regime.”

US and Russia relations

The US and the UK were hoping that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would be able to deliver a clear message from the G7 when he visits Moscow. Johnson also explained that his reason for cancelling his visit to Moscow was based on the need to offer Russia the “clearest possible mandate” and “present a united front” that could only be achieved if the G7 agreed on the sanctions. The member states need to support the sanctions unanimously and there are legal procedures for sanctions to be approved at the EU level.

Tillerson is expected to offer Putin the choice of abandoning Syria and being rewarded with warmer western relations, or continue his support and ending up in a situation similar to Libya, when in 2011 rebel fighters captured and killed Gaddafi and defeated loyalist forces.

The White House stated that president Trump had talked to Angela Merkel over the phone and agreed that Assad should be held “accountable”, but there was no reference to sanctions.

On Monday night the White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, didn’t erase the possibility for further action by the Trump administration against the Syrian government: “When you watch babies and children being gassed, and suffer under barrel bombs, you are instantaneously moved to action. I think this president’s made it very clear that if those actions were to continue, further action will definitely be considered by the United States.”

The Russian foreign ministry released a statement saying that the relationship between the US and Russia was turbulent and repeated that the Syrian government wasn’t responsible for the attacks. The statement said: “Does Washington plan to shift to real cooperation with us to counteract terrorism, including in Syria? The recent US missile strike on the Syrian government forces’ Shayrat airbase, which was an act of aggression against a sovereign government in violation of international law, will most likely strengthen terrorists.”

The German foreign minister supported Russia and Iran by saying they should be involved in any peace talks to end the Syrian civil war. “Not everyone may like it, but without Moscow and without Tehran there will be no solution for Syria,” he said. 

But while the EU has shown support for Trump’s interventionist action in Syria, they still argue that any solution in the future should come through procedures and political discussion.

Against the US

Most critical of Trump’s military intervention in Syria were American reporters who have condemned his administration as lacking strategic vision. Both Tillerson and UN ambassador Nikki Haley have failed to reveal if the Trump administration has any concrete plans about the future of Syria. CNN’s Gregory Krieg in “How Syria is shuffling Trump-era politics” highlighted the “mystery” surrounding Trump’s next move in Syria. In Washington Post, Eugene Robinson criticised Tillerson’s statement on a Sunday show that Assad’s fate depended on the “Syrian people”, especially when the Syrian people have been trying to get rid of him for the last six years in a “brutal war that has killed about 400,000 people and displaced half of Syria’s population.”  As the article noted, “There is no political process through which Syrians can express their will. There is only a grinding, multi-sided conflict that has allowed the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, to seize huge swaths of territory.” But any strike or military action endangers the lives of millions of civilians who remain in a vulnerable position as the Syrian government continues its use of Barrel bombs, while Russian forces, Isis and other jihadist and rebel groups continue fighting among them.

Russian claims

Vladimir Putin has claimed that the US is planning to attack Damascus with chemical weapons and blame Assad in order to frame him. Putin said: "We have information from different sources that these provocations - I cannot call them otherwise - are being prepared in other regions of Syria, including in the southern suburbs of Damascus where there are plans to throw some substance and accuse the official Syrian authorities."

Putin’s allegations are a form of linguistic warfare in order to attack the US’s interventionist actions in Syria. His comments were made a few hours before Tillerson is expected to arrive in Moscow on Wednesday. Putin has promised that he would appeal to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate the chemical attack in Syria. But Putin’s allegations and the so-called re-enactment of Cold War discourse and sentiment could easily be a distraction from Putin’s real plans in Syria and his relationship with the US. It is definitely horrible to see the many lives of Syrian people sacrificed for nothing, while Putin continues his rhetoric about Assad’s innocence. What’s perhaps worse, is the way the privileged and cosmopolitan European elites are sitting comfortably in Tuscany discussing over a glass of wine the possibility of peace talks with Assad and Russia and political procedures, but nonetheless doing nothing to stop the bloodshed.