G-7 ministers aim to press Russia to stop backing Assad

Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano, right, welcomes British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson as he arrives for a meeting of Group of 7 foreign ministers in Lucca, Italy, on April 10, 2017.
Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano, right, welcomes British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson as he arrives for a meeting of Group of 7 foreign ministers in Lucca, Italy, on April 10, 2017.
(Vincenzo Pinto / AFP/Getty Images)

Foreign ministers from the Group of 7 industrialized nations meeting in Italy sought Monday to build a united front against Syrian President Bashar Assad, threatening to increase sanctions against the autocratic leader and his key ally Russia after a chemical attack that killed dozens last week.

As international condemnation over the incident continued to rage, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. stands firm in its commitment to protect innocent civilians from attacks by aggressors.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson struck a similarly hard-line tone, saying he hoped to persuade the G-7 diplomats to consider imposing new sanctions on Syria and Russia, targeting key military figures, in an effort to bring about a lasting political solution to the country’s civil war, now in its seventh year.


Russia has a choice, Johnson said: Continue backing Assad’s “toxic” government, or “work with the rest of the world to find a solution for Syria, a political solution.”

“I think the Russians need a way out and a way forward,” Johnson told the BBC. “If you think about the position of [Russian President] Vladimir Putin now, he’s toxifying the reputation of Russia by his continuing association with a government which has flagrantly poisoned its own people.”

Tillerson spoke to reporters earlier in the day at a World War II memorial in a Tuscan village where Nazis massacred more than 500 townspeople. “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” Tillerson said, alluding to the U.S. decision to launch punitive strikes against the Syrian air base that officials believe was used to launch last week’s chemical attack. “This place will serve as an inspiration to us all.”

The attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, in northern Syria, has renewed global focus on Assad’s brutal government and the seemingly intractable Syrian civil war. It has also led to stepped-up calls for Assad’s removal from power along with new attempts to broker peace.

The U.S. decision to launch a preliminary intervention in the Syrian conflict runs counter to the rhetoric that President Trump espoused on the campaign trail.

The president previously said he preferred to focus solely on defeating the militant group Islamic State, but he has defended the decision to fire off 59 cruise missiles at the Syrian base as being in America’s “vital national security and foreign policy interests.”


The airstrikes marked the first time the U.S. has acted directly against Assad’s forces.

Washington has received widespread international support for its unilateral action, but Syria’s allies have expressed their deep condemnation. Russia reacted furiously, insisting that the Syrian air force had not attacked its own people with chemical weapons, but instead struck a “large terrorist ammunition depot” near the village.

“Returning to pseudo-attempts to resolve the crisis by repeating mantras that Assad must step down cannot help sort things out,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday.

Russia previously would have been invited to summits such as Monday’s meeting in Lucca, Italy, but was kicked out of the group of major industrialized nations, formerly called the G-8, for its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Foreign ministers from the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Italy and Japan were all present. Italy also invited counterparts from Turkey, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to the final morning of discussions set for Tuesday in the hope of gaining broader support for any proposal to tackle — or topple — Assad.

On Tuesday, Tillerson is due to travel to Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Tillerson said he hopes that after Monday’s meeting, he can present a united front and deliver a “clear and coordinated message to the Russians.”

The British foreign secretary had been due to meet with Lavrov before Monday’s G-7 meeting but canceled at the last minute, saying that the chemical attack had “changed the situation fundamentally.”

As the Trump administration continued to send mixed signals about its Syria policy, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer appeared to expand the triggers for a U.S. retaliatory strike, saying that if “barrel bombs,” and not just illegal nerve gas, were used, “further action will definitely be considered.”

“If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb in to innocent people, I think you can — you will — you will see a response from this president,” Spicer told reporters at the regular White House news conference Monday. That would be a remarkable departure, because Assad drops barrel bombs on civilians on an almost-daily basis.

Later, Spicer seemed to attempt to walk back his comments, issuing a written statement that “nothing has changed” in U.S. policy.

While creating a shared vision for how to deal with the Syrian leader was clearly at the top of the agenda, discussing efforts to combat terrorism and global warming and monitoring potentially volatile situations in North Korea, Iran, Ukraine and Libya were also of concern to the group.

And not all the negotiations went smoothly.

Energy ministers announced Monday afternoon that they were unable to reach agreement on a climate change statement after the U.S. said it was still reviewing its stance on the issue. All countries, apart from the U.S., were prepared to sign a declaration restating their commitment to emissions reduction goals adopted at the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. But Trump has not shown the commitment to slowing climate change that his predecessor did. Last month, Trump signed an order scrapping key elements of a regulatory plan, ordered by then-President Obama, to cut planet-warming emissions from power plants.

The meetings in Lucca were greeted outside by anti-capitalist protesters, including anarchists and members of a group campaigning against the development of high-speed railways, who clashed with police.

“Tuscany against the G-7 — out with the murderers,” and “millions of euros for your military spending, as you cut money for people’s houses!” banners read.

Boyle is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.


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Syria crisis tests Trump’s plan for a new world order


5:45 p.m.: The story was updated with comments from White House spokesman Sean Spicer.

2:30 p.m.: This story was updated with additional details on the meeting.

12 p.m.: This story was updated throughout with Times reporting.

This story was originally published at 8:10 a.m.