Berlin (CNSNews.com) – Germany and its allies in the G7 have been forced to walk a difficult path in their relationship with Russia – condemning it for its support for the Assad regime, but also acknowledging they need it to broker a “political solution” in Syria.
Following the deadly April 4 chemical weapon attack in Syria, Germany and other Western nations rallied against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and supported the retaliatory U.S. missile strike on a Syrian airbase, which has reignited tensions between Washington and Moscow.
On Wednesday however, Russia demonstrated its influence by vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution seeking to pressure the Assad regime to provide investigators access and information such as flight plans. Syria denies responsibility for the toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, and Russia backs that denial.
The move in New York appears to underline the conclusion reached at a G7 meeting in Italy early this week. Foreign ministers from the U.S., Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Canada and Japan resolved that Russia (as well as Iran) could not be pushed into a corner through tools such as sanctions, leaving political dialog and an investigation into the Khan Sheikhun attack the only options.
“We urge Russia to work to promote a real and genuine political process in Syria,” the group said in a joint statement released after the meeting.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had initially proposed more sanctions against Russia, but the suggestion was quickly rejected. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel suggested the sanctions proposal was dismissed as there could be no “overnight solution.”
“All G7 states do not want military escalation but a political solution without a new spiral of violence,” he said. “We would like to win the support of Russia for reaching a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict.”
“We must have dialogue with Russia,” agreed Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano. “We must not push Russia into a corner.”
The German reluctance to rely on sanctions may be a consequence of last year’s debate over whether sanctions should be imposed against Russia, at a time of heavy Russian bombing of rebel-held parts of Aleppo.
Then, Chancellor Angela Merkel supported more sanctions against Moscow, but faced opposition – within her own party, from political opponents, and from the broader German public, which appeared to favor dialog over sanctions.
Nonetheless, the current unease about sanctions contrasted with Berlin’s strong response last week to the chemical weapons attack and its support for the U.S. cruise missile strike.
“The federal government sees responsibility lying with Russia and Iran as allies of the al-Assad regime,” a government spokeswoman told a news conference in Berlin last Wednesday. “We are convinced that without their massive military support, the regime would have long ago had to agree to serious negotiations about a political solution.”
After the U.S. airstrike, Merkel called the action “understandable” in light of the nature of the chemical attack. “President Assad bears sole responsibility for this development,” she said in a video statement on Friday.
Now, Germany and other G7 members appear to have changed tone, trying instead to appeal to Russia. The group called for an investigation by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) into who was responsible for the attack, believing it to be the best approach to swaying Putin.
“I believe that Russia wants to be a respected international partner,” Gabriel said. “One could not stand on the side of a regime that – not for the first time – had used poisonous gas against its own civilian population.”
The German foreign minister suggested that, should an investigation find Assad liable, that would lead Russia to naturally reconsider its position.
The OPCW initiated an investigation within hours of the Khan Sheikhun attack. A preliminary fact-finding mission will determine whether chemical weapons were used. If so, a joint United Nations-OPCW investigation will try to establish responsibility.
Previous joint U.N.-OPCW investigations have determined that Syrian government troops were responsible for three chlorine gas attacks in 2014 and 2015, and that ISIS was responsible for a sulphur mustard gas attack in 2015.
The Trump administration says it has high confidence that sarin gas was used in Khan Sheikhun, and that at least one munition laden with the lethal nerve agent was dropped from a regime warplane on April 4.
Russia, which denies the use of chemical weapons by Assad, called last week’s U.S. airstrike “a flagrant violation of international law and an act of aggression.”