Two Russian military police officers guard in the yard of Aleppos oldest Umayyad mosque, Syria (Source: PTI)

Germany Calls for Pressure on Russia Over Its Support for Syria

(Bloomberg) -- As the U.S. and its allies edge toward possible strikes in response to a chemical weapons attack they blame on Syria, Germany called for more pressure to be applied on Russia for its support of President Bashar Al-Assad.

Speaking in Brussels on Friday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas portrayed Russia’s veto of 12 resolutions in the United Nations Security Council as evidence that the Kremlin is prolonging the war in Syria.

Germany Calls for Pressure on Russia Over Its Support for Syria

“We can’t go on like this,” Maas told reporters at the European Union’s headquarters. “So we’re keeping up the political pressure on Russia and we’d like to increase it further. Getting Russia to change its behavior is a condition for solving the Syria conflict.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that Germany won’t join military strikes against Assad, while leaving non-military options open. Merkel discussed Syria in a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday.

“We will do everything we can to maintain diplomatic and political pressure on Russia,” Steffen Seibert, Merkel’s chief spokesman, told reporters Friday. “This also has been a topic in the talks we’ve had with Putin.”

U.S. Deliberations

The U.S. government last week stepped up pressure on Russia by imposing sanctions aimed against Kremlin-connected billionaires. They target seven oligarchs and 12 companies for the Russian government’s “malign activity around the globe,” including arming Assad’s regime.

While similar EU sanctions against Russia are unlikely, non-military options could also be deployed against Syria and its allies. A parallel track would broaden the response to an alleged chemical weapons attack last weekend by Assad’s regime, which has drawn widespread condemnation and raised the prospect of international military retaliation.

Before meeting his national security team on Thursday, President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House that “we’re looking very very seriously, very closely” at the Syria situation. When Trump hit Syria last year, the targeted attack was strictly military -- 59 Tomahawk missiles.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet on Thursday “agreed on the need to take action to alleviate humanitarian distress and to deter the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.” That suggests May is prepared to join Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron if strikes are launched against Syria.

Tensions remained high in the Middle East as Western powers debated their next steps. Oil headed for the biggest weekly advance in nine months on speculation that conflict could lead to supply disruptions. Futures have gained more than 8 percent this week in New York.

Fact-Finding Mission

Experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are expected in Syria this weekend for a fact-finding mission in Douma, where the alleged April 7 chemical attack took place. Syria will allow the experts to go “wherever they want to go and at any time,” the country’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, said in a statement in New York on Thursday, according to state-run SANA news agency.

Syria’s state-run newspapers continued lashing out at the U.S. In an editorial, Al-Thawra likened Trump to a wrestler, who threatens to enter the ring one day and then withdraws. “He seems unaware that he may burn in the flames of his craving for wars and money,” the Damascus-based newspaper wrote.

Trump and May spoke late Thursday and “agreed it was vital that the use of chemical weapons did not go unchallenged, and on the need to deter the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime,” according to a statement from the U.K.

Germany should push for a special summit to formulate a joint EU position on Syria and plans for a peace initiative, Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, said on Deutschlandfunk radio on Friday. Ischinger said the U.S. and Russia are “behaving irresponsibly. It’s alarming but it’s not a reason to panic.”

Escalation Risk

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that his greatest fear from a potential strike on Syria is that the conflict would “escalate out of control, if you get my drift.” Russian, Turkish and Iranian forces are operating in Syria along with American forces combating Islamic State militants, risking a conflagration if a U.S. strike goes awry.

Mattis said that the U.S. aim in Syria is to defeat Islamic State, not “to engage in the civil war itself.” But referring to the use of chemical weapons, Mattis said that “some things are simply inexcusable, beyond the pale” and require a response.

With the U.S. ramping up its military presence alongside exploring diplomatic channels, “the hope is they will get the result of the strike without doing it,” said Sami Nader, head of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs in Beirut. “The outcome could be a return to talks about the departure of Assad.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.