Tillerson, colleagues seek G-7 Syria unity
Allies want signs of U.S. policy after missile strike
LUCCA, ITALY | Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven industrialized nations met Monday to try to forge a common response to the deadly chemical attack in Syria, with new sanctions against Russian backers of President Bashar Assad one of the options on the table.
G-7 diplomats sitting down for talks in the centuries-old Ducal Palace in Lucca, Italy, hope to use outrage over the attack and wide international support for the Trump administration’s retaliatory missile strikes to push Russia to abandon Mr. Assad and join a new peace effort for Syria.
Members of the group also hoped to gain a sense from Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson of President Trump’s next steps and foreign policy goals, with Mr. Tillerson heading on to Moscow for his first meeting with Russian leaders since being confirmed starting Tuesday.
Speaking after meeting with Mr. Tillerson, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said ministers “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.”
He said Russia had a choice: to continue backing the “toxic” Assad regime “or to work with the rest of the world to find a solution for Syria — a political solution.”
But top Trump administration officials have sent mixed signals in the past two days about whether they share the determination of allies such as Britain that Mr. Assad must be removed from power as part of a long-term solution to the Syrian civil war and the fight against jihadi groups such as Islamic State.
Last week’s nerve gas attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, which killed more than 80 people, stirred Mr. Trump — who was previously cool to the idea of U.S. intervention — to strike for the first time at Mr. Assad’s forces. U.S. warships fired 59 cruise missiles at the Syrian air base from which the U.S. believes the attack was launched.
The U.S. strikes drew support from other Western leaders who have been uncertain what to make of Mr. Trump’s self-described “America First” foreign policy. Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said Sunday that Europe’s broad support for the U.S. military strikes had contributed to a “renewed harmony” between Washington and its partners.
The two-day G-7 meeting in the Tuscan walled city of Lucca is bringing together the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Britain, Japan and Canada, the U.S. and current G-7 president Italy, as well as European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
Ahead of the full meeting, Mr. Tillerson held bilateral talks with G-7 counterparts including Britain’s Mr. Johnson, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.
Mr. Tillerson also spoke by phone with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, whose government insists Mr. Assad should play no role in Syria’s future.
The G-7 meeting comes as the United States is sending a Navy carrier strike group toward the Korean Peninsula in a show of strength following North Korea’s persistent ballistic missile tests.
The Syrian chemical attack has sent a new chill through relations between the West and Moscow, which backs Mr. Assad diplomatically and militarily, and denies Syrian forces used chemical weapons.
Russia planned to put forward a proposal on Monday for an independent and impartial investigation of the attack, a spokesman for German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said, calling it “a good and important sign.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, whose government is another backer of Mr. Assad’s, also called for an independent inquiry under U.N. auspices when he spoke Monday to Mr. Alfano, Italy’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
The United States is fighting Islamic State group militants in Syria, but had previously avoided striking government forces, largely out of concern about being pulled into a military conflict with Russia, whose relations with the West have been on a downward spiral for several years.
Russia was kicked out of the club of industrialized nations, formerly the G-8, after its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and assistance for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson (back to camera) met with his G-7 colleagues in Lucca, Italy, Monday to discuss the situation in Syria following a chemical attack by forces of President Basar Assad. Participants are aiming to pressure Russia to end its support for Mr. Assad in the wake of the attack that killed children.