The European Union has urged Russia to bring an end to the bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo, but refrained from imposing any sanctions on Moscow.
At a regular meeting of EU foreign ministers, several of them said sanctions against Russia would have no impact and could even be counter-productive in the search for an overall settlement to the conflict in Syria.
“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 sceptical about sanctions.”
Russia has been heavily involved, along with the Syrian regime, in the onslaught of Aleppo over the past few weeks since a ceasefire broke down.
While EU ministers were discussing Syria, the head of Russia’s military general staff said Russian and Syrian forces are preparing for a “humanitarian pause” for the besieged city on Thursday.
Lt Gen Sergei Rudskoi was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying that Russian and Syrian forces will halt their fighting from 8am to 4pm local time on October 20 in order to allow civilians and rebels safe passage out of the city, as well as for the evacuation of the sick and wounded.
EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini described the apparent Russian move as “a positive step”, but noted that UN agencies have indicated at least 12 hours would be needed for such an operation to be successful.
“I believe that there will be a little bit of work to be done to find the common ground,” she said.
The EU is looking for a lot more than just a temporary pause and in a common statement, ministers called on Russia to demonstrate “all efforts, in order to halt indiscriminate bombing by the Syrian regime, restore a cessation of hostilities, ensure immediate and expanded humanitarian access and create the conditions for a credible and inclusive political transition”.
Even though Russia was not threatened with measures, the ministers are targeting more at Syria. They said the EU will act “swiftly, according to established procedures, with the aim of imposing further restrictive measures against Syria targeting Syrian individuals and entities supporting the regime as long as the repression continues”.
The EU sanctions are likely to include travel bans and a freeze of assets belonging to political figures and top military officials accused of crimes.
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 have been targeted by a travel ban and an asset freeze over the violent repression of civilians.
French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Russia can count on the West to help in counter-terrorism efforts but insisted at the same time that “everything possible must be done to stop the bombing and allow humanitarian aid… to get to the population”.
Likening the attacks on Aleppo to Russia’s destruction of the Chechen capital Grozny in 1999 and 2000, Mr Ayrault said Russia is locked in “the logic of destruction, alongside the Assad regime”.
Talks involving Russia, the US and other Western powers over the weekend failed to secure any breakthrough likely to lead to a fresh ceasefire or open up access for humanitarian aid.