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G7 backs Tillerson ahead of Syria talks in Moscow

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From left : French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sit at a table on the second day of a meeting of Foreign Affairs Ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) industrialised countries on April 11, 2017 in Lucca, Tuscany. / AFP PHOTO / Vincenzo PINTO

G7 foreign ministers warned against military escalation in Syria Tuesday, throwing their support behind US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as he readies for crunch talks in Moscow, a key Damascus ally.

As diplomats from the seven major advanced economies gathered for talks in the Italian city of Lucca, they were joined by their counterparts from Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar for a special meeting on Syria which was convened by Italy.

“All the G7 states want to avoid a military escalation and want a political solution without a new spiral of violence,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said after talks in the Tuscan city.

“We want to bring Russia around to supporting the political process for a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict.”

And the German diplomat said Tillerson had “all our support” for his talks in Moscow, where he heads later on Tuesday.

Ahead of Tillerson’s trip, Washington has stepped up the pressure on Moscow to rein in its Syrian ally President Bashar al-Assad, warning Damascus that further use of chemical weapons could bring fresh US military retaliation.

US warships in the Mediterranean on Friday fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat air base near Homs, destroying an airfield from which Washington believes Assad’s jets launched a deadly chemical attack that killed at least 87 civilians.

– ‘Window of opportunity’ –
The strike was the first time Washington had intervened directly against the regime of Assad, who is fighting a six-year civil war with the backing of Russia and Iran.

Ahead of the meeting, Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano spoke by phone with his Iranian counterpart, asking him to use his influence on the Syrian regime to avoid further attacks on civilians.

On Tuesday, Alfano hailed the “window of opportunity to engage Russia seriously to relaunch the political process” and prevent the situation from escalating.

And Germany’s Gabriel stressed that “without Moscow and Tehran there will be no solution in Syria”.

While Moscow has suggested that civilians were poisoned by rebel weapons, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said there was no doubt the Syrian “regime has chemical weapons, and it needs to be prevented from using them again”.

The G7, which groups Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the US, has vowed to send a “clear and coordinated message” to Moscow through Tillerson, who will meet with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

As the ministers began meeting on Monday, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson described Assad as “toxic” and said it was “time for (Russian President) Vladimir Putin to face the truth about the tyrant he is propping up”.

– Barrel bombs –
Washington on Monday again warned Damascus not to carry out any more chemical attacks, saying its retaliatory strike had destroyed a fifth of Assad’s remaining warplanes.

“The United States will not passively stand by while Assad murders innocent people with chemical weapons, which are prohibited by international law and which were declared destroyed,” Pentagon chief James Mattis said in a statement.

“The Syrian government would be ill-advised ever again to use chemical weapons,” he added.

Mattis’s warning came as White House spokesman Sean Spicer appeared to lower the threshold for new US action against Assad to include barrel bombs, a crude yet hugely destructive weapon of choice for the Syrian leader.

“If you gas a baby or drop a barrel bomb onto innocent people, you will see a response from” President Donald Trump, Spicer said.

But US officials later appeared to go back on Spicer’s remarks.

“Nothing has changed in our posture,” a senior administration official said.

– ‘Hold Assad accountable’ –
Trump on Monday discussed Syria in separate telephone calls with British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Both May and Merkel “expressed support for the action of the United States and agreed with President Trump on the importance of holding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accountable,” the White House said in a statement.

Downing Street said both May and Trump were looking to Tillerson’s trip to Moscow this week as an opportunity to lay the groundwork for a “lasting political settlement”.

Several rounds of UN-backed peace talks have failed to end the Syrian conflict, which has killed more than 320,000 people since March 2011.

Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said he told Tillerson that Tokyo supports Washington in its push to “deter the spread and use of chemical weapons,” and discussed the pressing North Korean nuclear threat.

Japan is also hoping that the strong US response on Syria will also put pressure on Pyongyang, which is showing signs of preparing for its sixth nuclear test and more test-firings of ballistic missiles.

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