Diplomats from 29 countries including US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meet in Paris on Tuesday pushing for sanctions and criminal charges against the perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria.
Tillerson and his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian will also co-host a meeting of ministers ahead of a new round of peace talks in Vienna later this week and again in Sochi in Russia the week after.
The chemical weapons meeting from 1300 GMT comes after allegations Monday of a fresh chemical attack by the Syrian regime on Douma in the rebel-held region of Eastern Ghouta.
The alleged attack prompted a sharp warning from the US to Russia to rein in its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The regime has been repeatedly accused of using chemical weapons, with the United Nations among those blaming it for an April 2017 sarin gas attack on the opposition-held village of Khan Sheikhun which left scores dead.
There have been at least 130 separate chemical weapons attacks in Syria since 2012, according to French estimates, with the Islamic State group also accused of using mustard gas in Syria and Iraq.
A month after his election in May, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that chemical weapons were a “red line” that would prompt a response from France if used again, though he has declined to specify what that response would be.
– ‘We won’t let this lie’ –
At Tuesday’s meeting, countries will commit to sharing information and compiling a list of individuals implicated in the use of chemical weapons in Syria and beyond.
These could then be hit with sanctions such as asset freezes and entry bans as well as criminal proceedings at the national level.
The French initiative comes after Russia twice used its UN veto to block an extension of an inquiry by international experts into chemical weapons use in Syria.
“Today the situation is blocked at the highest international level,” an aide to Le Drian said.
“The perpetrators of chemical attacks must know that they can be prosecuted and that we won’t let this lie.”
Ahead of the meeting France announced asset freezes against 25 Syrian companies and executives, as well as French, Lebanese and Chinese businesses accused of aiding regime use of chemical weapons.
The brutal seven-year war has grown even more complex in recent days with Turkey launching a new ground operation against Kurdish militia who it considers an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
After the repeated collapse of UN-backed peace talks, a fresh round are due to be held in Vienna on January 25-26, followed by talks under a separate Russian peace initiative in Sochi on January 30, backed by Iran and Turkey.
Macron has been calling for months for the creation of a new Syria contact group that would bring together regional countries with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US.
Le Drian’s entourage indicated that his meeting co-hosted with Tillerson later Tuesday is intended to take the first steps towards setting up the new group.
“Those within the Syrian system have found it extremely difficult to establish a path for peace,” an aide to Le Drian said.
The meeting is designed to “find pathways towards and the means for a true political transition with the support of major powers, essentially the P5 and countries in the region directly affected,” the aide added.