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European Leaders Debate Response to Russia’s Actions in Syria

  • Henry Ridgwell

European Union heads of state continue their summit Friday in Brussels, where the EU’s response to Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria is high on the agenda. Syrian government forces began a 3-day cease-fire in Aleppo Thursday, but their Russian allies have refused to extend the deal, despite pressure from France and Germany.

Despite the temporary cease-fire in the skies above Aleppo, there’s little sign of a lasting end to the bombing campaign unleashed by Syrian government and Russian forces. Europe and the United States accuse Moscow of killing and injuring thousands of civilians – actions that France says amount to war crimes.

Arriving in Brussels for her first European Council summit Thursday, British Prime Minister Theresa May called for European unity.

“We must continue to work together, and it's vital that we work together to continue to put pressure on Russia to stop its appalling atrocities, its sickening atrocities, in Syria,” said May.

Europe had debated easing the sanctions applied to Russia over its forceful takeover of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. That’s now seen as highly unlikely, said John Lough of London-based policy institute Chatham House.

“The Russians were making a lot of progress in exploiting some divisions in Europe around sanctions. And [Russian President Vladimir] Putin faced with that opportunity then, to my mind, did something rather remarkable in Syria in engaging in this bombardment of Aleppo that’s caused international outrage. And then [that] immediately hardened attitudes in Europe,” said Lough.

Lough argues Europe needs to reformulate its policy response on Russia.

“We need dialogue in certain areas where we can have it. But at the same time, we need to maintain some firm instruments that show where our limits are. We have to defend our values – in my view we have to absolutely uphold the principle of inviolability of borders,” said Lough.

The Syrian civil war is among the push factors that have driven millions of refugees and migrants to European shores.

While the flow of migrants through Turkey has slowed, thousands continue to arrive every week on Italian shores from North Africa. Ahead of the Brussels summit, Italy accused Europe of a lack of solidarity in dealing with the crisis – with some justification, said Ian Bond of the Center for European Reform.

“Italy is facing a problem which is absolutely not its own fault, but the EU’s response has been inadequate. And that’s partly because you have countries like Hungary in particular, Poland to some extent, who are saying that they are not prepared to take part in sharing out the refugees who are reaching Italy,” said Bond.

In a packed Brussels schedule, Britain’s exit from the EU also will be featured – with both sides hardening their positions in recent weeks ahead of formal talks expected to begin next year.

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