The European Union has refrained from issuing an explicit threat of sanctions against Russia for supporting the Syrian government, amid divisions within the 28-member bloc over any such measure.
EU leaders, who had initially prepared a strongly-worded draft statement for a summit in Brussels, issued a watered-down version of the text at the end of the event on Friday.
The summit was held at the request of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to discuss EU’s strategy toward Russia, which is helping the Syrian government battle terrorists in Aleppo and elsewhere.
The West has stepped up pressure on Russia to stop targeting militant-held neighborhoods in Aleppo and blamed the country for the worsening humanitarian situation in the city.
Renzi against sanctions
The original draft had said the EU was “considering all options, including further restrictive measures targeting individuals and entities supporting” Syria. The draft text only mentioned Russia by name among the supporters of Damascus.
However, Renzi demanded that any explicit reference to sanctions be removed from the final statement.
“I believe there wouldn’t have been any sense in inserting a reference to sanctions,” the Italian prime minister told reporters after the summit.
The final statement was reworded to say the EU “strongly condemns” attacks by Syria “and its allies, notably Russia,” and called for an “immediate cessation of hostilities.”
Renzi’s opposition to sanctions laid bare disagreements among EU members. European Council President Donald Tusk cried foul, saying Russian foreign policy was an attempt to “weaken the EU.”
The European leader accused Russia of a myriad of offences, but said leaders had to forgo the sanctions threat to “keep the unity of the EU” toward Russia.
‘EU wants good ties with Russia’
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, however, said the European Union is willing to maintain good relations with Russia. Merkel and French President Francois Hollande met Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Berlin on Wednesday.
“We’ve had a very intensive exchange of views today especially as regards to our relationship with Russia. On the one hand, we want to have a good relationship with Russia,” Merkel said after the Friday summit.
“But on the other hand, we want to be very clear in our contacts about where we stand, especially with regards to recent developments in Syria,” she added.
Russia and Syria unilaterally announced a “humanitarian pause” for Aleppo on Thursday after halting the airstrikes some 48 hours ahead of the ceasefire as a gesture of goodwill.
The pause is meant to allow safe passage to civilians trapped in the militant-held side of Aleppo as well as those militants not affiliated to terrorist groups.
As the pause went into effect on Thursday, extremist groups began shelling the humanitarian corridors to hamper the evacuations.
Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, has been divided between the government forces and foreign-backed militants since 2012. The Syrian army launched operations to retake the militant-held eastern section of Aleppo on September 22.
The EU is already at loggerheads with Russia over the crisis in eastern Ukraine, where Brussels says Moscow is propping up groups seeking autonomy. Russia rejects the accusation.