EU demands Russia halt airstrikes on 'moderate Syrian rebels'

EU demands Russia halt airstrikes on 'moderate Syrian rebels'
Moscow's air raids must stop demanded European officials, who still advocate Assad's removal from power
4 min read
12 October, 2015
The EU's Mogherini said Russia's military power should be directed against the IS [Getty]

The EU demanded on Monday the "immediate" halt of Russian air strikes against moderate Syrian rebel groups, adding a lasting peace was impossible under Moscow-backed President Bashar al-Assad.

"The recent Russian military attacks that go beyond Daesh [Islamic State group, IS] and other UN-designated terrorist groups, as well as on the moderate opposition, are of deep concern and must cease immediately," the EU's 28 foreign ministers said in a statement released after a meeting.

"There cannot be a lasting peace in Syria under the present leadership," it added.

Speaking before the meeting, EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini warned the Russian intervention in Syria was a high-risk "game-changer”.

Mogherini added: "It is for sure a game-changer, it has some very worrying elements... it has to be coordinated, otherwise it risks being extremely dangerous, not only from a political point of view but also military." 

She said Russian military support for long-time Moscow ally President Bashar al-Assad had to be directed against the extremist fighters of Islamic State group (IS), not against the rebel groups seeking his ouster backed by the West.

Moscow says its air and missile strikes include the IS, but the West believes they seek to bolster Assad's position and let him to retake ground lost in the past 18 months.

EU divided

We are very clear that we cannot work with Assad as the long-term solution for the future of Syria
- UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond

The 28-nation European Union is divided over what role Assad can play in a solution to a conflict that has claimed some 250,000 lives so far.

Mogherini said EU foreign ministers will discuss EU policy on a number of Middle Eastern issues, including Syria and Libya, but also the weekend terrorist bombing in Turkey that killed 97 people, and a wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence marked by stabbings and shootings carried out by young Palestinians with no affiliation to militant groups.

Turmoil in the region has been identified as a leading factor for the surge of migrants trying to reach Europe.

She said the EU would put all its energy to support UN efforts to broker a peace deal and "this is a process which has to have all the relevant actors around the table."

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond warned that while there could be some flexibility on working with Assad, there were serious risks too of driving the rebels into the arms of the IS.

"We are very clear that we cannot work with Assad as the long-term solution for the future of Syria," Hammond said.
"We can be flexible about the manner... the timing of his departure, but if we try to work with Assad, we will only drive the opposition into the arms of IS, the very opposite of the outcome that we want," he said.

A draft statement of the meeting's conclusions on Syria seen by AFP refers to a "peaceful and inclusive transition," without mentioning Assad.

It adds however: "There cannot be a lasting peace in Syria under the present leadership and until the legitimate grievances and aspirations of the Syrian society are addressed."

Putin reaches out to Saudis

The Russian president met Saudi Arabia's Defence Minister on Sunday to discuss the possibility of a political solution in Syria, where Moscow has been conducting airstrikes since late September.

Meeting in the southern Russian city of Sochi, Putin and Salman were joined by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Energy Minister Alexander Novak.

"We have closely cooperated with Saudi Arabia for years on the crisis in Syria," Lavrov told journalists, according to remarks broadcast on television.

"The two parties confirmed that Saudi Arabia and Russia have similar objectives when it comes to Syria. Above all, it is to not let a terrorist caliphate take over the country."

After today's talks, we understand better how to move toward a political solution
- Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

"After today's talks, we understand better how to move toward a political solution," Lavrov said.

Mohammed bin Salman said Riyadh was worried about Russia's military intervention in Syria, and the country's possible alliance with Iran.

He added Saudi Arabia was in favour of a political solution in Syria, but one which includes the departure of President Bashar al-Assad, a staunch ally of Moscow.

Lavrov also said Moscow was ready for closer cooperation with Riyadh to make clear that the country was in fact targeting IS, Nusra Front and other terrorist strongholds in Syria.

Using modern jets and older Soviet aircraft, Russia has bombed command posts and training camps of what it says are radical "terrorists", backing a ground offensive by the forces of Assad.

Moscow has flexed its muscles with the bombing campaign across the war-torn country, which has put a US-led coalition in the shade and angered Washington and its allies.

Putin said Sunday that the Russian operation's objective was to "stabilise the legitimate authorities and create conditions for finding a political compromise."