FLORENCE, Italy – Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says Russia has a chance to get on the “right side of history” and help negotiate a political end to Bashar Assad’s reign of terror in Syria.
Freeland, in Italy for meetings of the G7 foreign ministers, says Assad’s gruesome chemical attack against his own people and the U.S. missile strike that followed have created conditions conducive to a political solution to the tensions in Syria.
She’s urging Russia, long a supporter of Assad, to break with the Syrian president and help broker his departure in order to establish a lasting peace in the troubled region.
It echoes the position of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who flew straight from the summit in Italy to Moscow, carrying the G7’s strong desire for a new start in Syria, but few concrete proposals to make it happen.
The G7 blames Assad’s military for a deadly chemical attack last week.
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.
Freeland says she met today with the so-called “like-minded” group around Syria, which includes Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as other G-7 members.
“The combination of the horrendous chemical weapons attack and the strong U.S. response has created the possibility of some real political movement, and that is why there was so much focus on Syria at the meeting,” Freeland told a conference call today.
“There’s an opportunity to bring renewed energy to the political process.”
The ball, she added, is squarely in Russia’s court now.
“Russia needs to decide whether it wants to double down on its support of a murderous regime that is committing war crimes, or whether right now it wants to say, ‘You know what? We do not want to be associated with this, this is not where we want our country to be,”’ she said.
“Now I think is an opportunity for Russia to make that break and to use its influence with Assad to push the Assad regime to fairly participate in political negotiations that can bring peace to Syria.
“I really do hope Russia will take this opportunity to be on the right side of history.”
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson says the G7 is considering new sanctions on Russian military figures to press Moscow to end military support for Assad. U.S. officials in Washington have also raised that prospect.
But others want 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 six-year civil war.
Tillerson’s trip comes after an American official said the U.S. has drawn a preliminary conclusion that Russia knew in advance of the chemical attack – an allegation that heightens already acute tensions between Washington and Moscow.
Until Trump ordered U.S. missile strikes in response to the nerve gas attack that killed more than 80, the president had focused on defeating the Islamic State group and had shown no appetite for challenging Assad – and, by extension, his Russian supporter President Vladimir Putin.
With files from The Associated Press