The Group of 7 industrialized nations on Tuesday urged Russia to pressure the Syrian government to end the six-year civil war, but rejected a British call to impose new sanctions on Moscow over its support of President Bashar Assad.
Foreign ministers from the seven countries said Moscow can play a constructive role in ending the brutal conflict that has destabilized the Middle East, driven millions to escape Syria and further frayed relations between the West and Russia.
“Russia can be a part of that future and play an important role,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said. Or, he added, it could maintain its alliance with Syria, Iran and the militant group Hezbollah, “which we believe is not going to serve Russia’s interests’ longer term.”
The G-7 blames Assad’s military for a deadly chemical attack last week. On Tuesday, Turkey’s health minister said test results confirmed sarin gas was used in the attack.
Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately showed that he wouldn’t back down, saying Russia knew about planned “provocations” to blame Syria’s government for using chemical weapons. He said the U.N. should first investigate the attack.
“It reminds me of the events in 2003 when U.S. envoys to the [U.N.] Security Council were demonstrating what they said were chemical weapons found in Iraq,” Putin told reporters in Moscow on Tuesday. “We have seen it all already.”
The G-7 ministers meeting in the walled Tuscan city of Lucca strongly supported U.S. missile strikes that targeted a Syrian air base believed to have been used to launch the attack. But they were divided about how to deal with Syria, and Moscow.
Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano, who hosted the G-7 gathering, said “there is no consensus for further new sanctions.”
“We must have a dialogue with Russia,” he said. “We must not push Russia into a corner.”
Instead of sanctions, the meeting’s final communique called for an investigation by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to determine who was responsible for the “war crime.” The U.S. and Britain say there is little doubt Assad’s forces are culpable.
The group’s stance was a rebuff to British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who said Monday the G-7 was considering new sanctions on Russian military figures to press Moscow to end military support for the “toxic” Assad government. U.S. officials in Washington have also raised that prospect.
Others argued for a more conciliatory approach. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said Russia, and Assad ally Iran, must be involved in any peace process to end Syria’s civil war.
Gabriel said the United States had “sent a clear signal to the Assad regime” by launching cruise missiles at a Syrian air base, but said other nations should “reach out to Russia” rather than seek a military escalation.
“Not everyone may like it, but without Moscow and without Tehran there will be no solution for Syria,” he said.
The other G-7 members — Germany, France, Britain, Canada, Japan and current president Italy — are also trying to grasp what the U.S. administration’s foreign policy is, amid conflicting signals from Washington.
Tillerson flew straight from the summit in Italy to Moscow, carrying the G-7’s strong desire for a new start in Syria, but few concrete proposals to make it happen. It’s expected he will face tense meetings with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
At the G-7 meeting, Tillerson said Russia bore responsibility for Assad’s chemical attacks on civilians in war-ravaged Syria.
“Stockpiles and continued use demonstrate that Russia has failed in its responsibility to deliver on its 2013 commitment” to remove chemical weapons from Syria under a U.N.-brokered deal, he said.
“It is unclear whether Russia failed to take this obligation seriously or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement,” he said. “This distinction doesn’t much matter to the dead.”
Tillerson has previously said that Russia was either incompetent or complicit in Syria’s illegal use of chemical weapons, used in the attack last week that killed scores of people, including many children.
He said the retaliatory U.S. missile strike that followed “was necessary as a matter of U.S. national security” and to prevent banned weapons from reaching the militant Islamic State organization that is operating in Syria.