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EU Softens Sanctions Threat Against Russia Over Syria Bombings

A besieged neighborhood in Aleppo, Syria
A besieged neighborhood in Aleppo, Syria

European Union leaders have pledged to keep all options open to respond to atrocities committed in Syria by Russia and President Bashar al-Assad's regime, but stopped short of explicitly threatening Moscow with sanctions.

Despite strong rhetoric against Russia's air bombardment of the Syrian city of Aleppo, the leaders' summit meeting in Brussels on October 21 failed to agree on a tough joint statement sending a clear message to Moscow that it could face punitive measures.

Italy's prime minister prevailed upon other European leaders to exclude tough language favored by France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and other EU powers that would have explicitly threatened sanctions against Russian individuals and organizations that support the Syrian regime.

Meanwhile, as EU leaders debated ways to take a unified approach toward President Vladimir Putin, Russian warships steamed toward Mediterranean waters off Syria in what could signal an escalation of the conflict, to the alarm of NATO.

"Russia's strategy is to weaken the EU," said European Council President Donald Tusk, who said the meeting that stretched past midnight also featured discussions of Russia's violations of EU air space, its disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, and interference in political processes of the EU and beyond.

"We had a sober assessment of the reality and no illusions," he said, and the bloc's leaders agreed it was important to stay unified in their approach to Russia.

The final EU statement strongly condemns attacks on civilians by Russia and the Syrian regime, calls for a lasting cease-fire, and declares that the EU stands ready to consider "all available options if these atrocities continue."

French President Francois Hollande said "all options are open for as long as there is not a cease-fire that is respected and for as long as there is an intention to destroy this town, Aleppo, a town of martyrs."

The United Nations said on October 20 that Russian and Syrian bombing of Aleppo has killed nearly 500 people in the past month, and large parts of the city will face severe food shortages by the end of this month.

The division within the EU over how tough it should be on Russia for its aggression in Syria is influenced by the economic and energy ties various European states have cultivated with Moscow.

Under sanctions imposed in 2014 over Russia's aggression in Ukraine, trade with Russia has dropped by around 30-50 percent in a number of European countries.

Italy, which in the past had particularly close economic ties with Moscow, has struggled with stagnant economic growth and has particularly chafed under the Ukraine sanctions.

Those concerns appeared to be behind Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's move to soften the language adopted by the EU by excluding a phrase explicitly threatening sanctions -- "further restrictive measures targeting individuals and entities supporting the [Syrian] regime" -- should atrocities continue.

Italy was aided in persuading other European powers to dilute the sanctions threat as Russia earlier in the day had instituted a cease-fire in Aleppo that it said would last for 11 hours each day for the next four days to allow humanitarian deliveries and the evacuation of the wounded.

"We have approved a document that recalls the need to get as quickly as possible to an agreement, to a real truce and to a political transition process that we have been awaiting for a while," Renzi said after the summit meeting. "But I think that there is no point in also adding here a reference to sanctions."

"We should do everything possible for a peace deal in Syria, but it's difficult to imagine that this should be linked to further sanctions on Russia," he said.

Taking a harder line, British Prime Minister Theresa May said before the meeting that it was "vital that we work together to continue to put pressure on Russia to stop its appalling atrocities, its sickening atrocities, in Syria."

Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas also advocated a tough policy toward Moscow and Assad.

"They have the ambition of turning Aleppo into a new Grozny. This is absolutely unacceptable," he said, referring to the destruction of the Chechen capital in 1999-2000 by Russian troops.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the language agreed in the end leaves the door open to sanctions, as she has advocated.

The EU "cannot accept these inhuman bombardments," she said after the meeting. "If this kind of violation continues, of course we will envisage all available measures in order to react to this."

Merkel added: "I think there was fairly broad agreement concerning the strategic options on Russia."

But Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Loefven said the EU was divided over new sanctions on Russia. "I don't think there is unity now... But I think it should be on the table, that this is an option for the future," he said.

With reporting by AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters, and RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Rikard Jozwiak
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