LUXEMBOURG — The European Union urged Russia to bring about a swift end to the bombing of Aleppo in Syria but refrained from imposing any sanctions on Moscow even though it said the attacks on the city could amount to war crimes.
At a regular meeting of foreign ministers from the EU’s 28 member states on Monday, several ministers said sanctions against Russia would have no impact and could even be counterproductive 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 skeptical about sanctions.”
Russia has been heavily involved along with the Syrian regime in the onslaught of Aleppo over the past few weeks since a cease-fire broke down.
In a statement following their meeting, ministers said the Syrian “regime and its allies, notably Russia,” had used “clearly disproportionate” violence in Aleppo. It said the offensive targeting hospitals, schools, were part of attacks that “may amount to war crimes.”
While EU ministers were discussing Syria, the head of Russia’s military general staff said Russian and Syrian forces are preparing a “humanitarian pause” for the besieged city on Thursday.
Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying Monday that Russian and Syrian forces will halt their fighting from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Oct. 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 that 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 Syrians. 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, Ayrault said Russia is locked in “the logic of destruction, alongside the Assad regime.”
Talks involving Russia, the U.S. and other Western powers over the weekend failed to secure any breakthrough likely to lead to a fresh cease-fire or open up access for humanitarian aid.
But like the major powers directly involved in Syria talks, EU countries are divided over the best way ahead.
And possible sanctions against Russia showed that division.
Austria’s Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said that “sanctions against Russia don’t ease the suffering of the civilians in Aleppo. Rather the contrary. This can lead to a further escalation.”
Geir Moulson in Berlin, Lorne Cook in Brussels and Pablo Gorondi in Budapest contributed.