European Union blames Assad for chemical attack in nuanced message

Published: September 8, 2013
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US Secretary of State John Kerry (C) is greeted by European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton as he arrives for a meeting of EU ministers of foreign affairs at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius September 7, 2013. PHOTO: REUTERS

US Secretary of State John Kerry (C) is greeted by European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton as he arrives for a meeting of EU ministers of foreign affairs at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius September 7, 2013. PHOTO: REUTERS

VILNIUS: The European Union on Saturday laid the blame for an August chemical attack in Syria on the government of President Bashar al-Assad, but stopped short of explicitly supporting a military response by the West.

The carefully worded message from foreign ministers of 28 EU governments meeting in Vilnius allowed France to claim victory in its push to get the EU to agree that Assad was responsible for the attack in which more than 1,400 may have been killed.

But it also made clear that the bloc wanted the United Nations to have a role in agreeing an international response, reflecting the position of countries including Germany which oppose taking action before a team of UN inspectors can present its findings on the incident.

After the EU agreement, Germany said it would sign a statement supported by 11 nations at the Group of Twenty summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday that backed a “strong” response to the alleged use of sarin gas against civilians.

Germany said it did not sign on Friday because it wanted to see an EU consensus on the issue first.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the ministers meeting in the Lithuanian capital had agreed that information from a wide variety of sources “seems to indicate strong evidence” of the Syrian government’s responsibility.

The government, she said, “is the only one that possesses chemical weapons agents and means of their delivery in sufficient quantity”.

The ministers agreed that the world “cannot remain idle” and said a clear and strong response was needed to prevent any future use of chemical weapons in Syria, she said.

They made no direct mention of any military action, contemplated by the United States and France, however.

Both Paris and Washington welcomed the EU statement.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, also in Vilnius, said, “We are very grateful for the statement that came out of the meeting today with respect to Syria – a strong statement about the need for accountability.”

Kerry’s trip to Europe, which includes stops in Paris and London, aims to bolster President Barack Obama’s push to persuade the US Congress to authorise a limited strike against Syria over the August 21 attack.

Bridging EU Divisions

Many EU governments have expressed reservations about using military force to punish Assad, now fighting a 2-1/2-year battle against rebels in which more than 100,000 people have died.

Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Washington should wait until UN inspectors have released their findings from a visit to the Damascus suburb where the attack took place.

Following pressure from Germany and other EU governments, France has changed course this week and said it would also wait for the UN findings.

“We have all welcomed that France decided to wait,” Westerwelle said in Vilnius.

“We have expressed our clear expectation to our American partners that it is better to follow the French example before any kind of actions that are being discussed in capitals.”

Westerwelle and his EU counterparts urged the UN to release a preliminary report on its mission as soon as possible.

A senior US State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “Secretary Kerry made clear that he would report back to the national security team the recommendations of some members of the EU to wait for the results of the UN inspection, but he also made clear that the United States has not made the decision to wait.”

The EU also expressed support for the International Criminal Court to investigate Syrian officials who may have played a role in the attack for possible war crimes.

The Netherlands-based ICC needs authorization from the UN Security Council before it can act. Russia and China have so far blocked any referrals related to events in Syria.

“The EU recalls the individual responsibility of the perpetrators … who must be held accountable, and the role of the ICC in investigating and judging such acts,” they said.

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Reader Comments (6)

  • Sexton Blake
    Sep 8, 2013 - 3:21AM

    As Germany’s Mr. Goebbels once said in so many words, “if you tell a lie tell a big one. That way you will be believed by the masses”. Obviously, many of the Western leaders, including Mr. Kerry and Ms Ashcroft have taken this on board and are continually and untruthfully accusing President Assad of using chemical weapons without any proof whatsoever. If they had real evidence they would have produced it by now.

    Recommend

  • Bahauddin Naul
    Sep 8, 2013 - 8:18AM

    Nothing but wolf and the lamb story

    Recommend

  • Realist
    Sep 8, 2013 - 9:55AM

    So they are not even waiting for verification from UN report?

    Recommend

  • Sonya
    Sep 8, 2013 - 10:01AM

    EU is not a country but a forum where decisions are complex to make. EU can oy make statements nothing more.

    Recommend

  • Muhammad
    Sep 8, 2013 - 11:12AM

    @Sonya:
    The EU is a much stronger union than the puppet OIC.Recommend

  • Truth seeker
    Sep 9, 2013 - 11:22AM

    @Sexton Blake:
    After reading your comment “if you tell a lie tell a big one” I recalled the biggest lie to the world which was an inside job. **9/11**Recommend

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