LUCCA, Italy — Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven industrialized nations met Monday to try to forge a common response to the deadly chemical attack in Syria, with new sanctions against Russian backers of President Bashar Assad one of the options on the table.
G-7 diplomats sitting down for talks in the centuries-old Ducal Palace in Lucca, Italy, hope to use outrage over the attack and wide international support for the United States’ retaliatory missile strikes to push Russia to abandon Assad and join a new peace effort for Syria.
Members of the group also hope to gain a sense from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson of President Donald Trump’s next steps and foreign-policy goals.
Speaking after meeting with Tillerson, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said ministers “will be discussing the possibility of further sanctions, certainly, on some of the Syrian military figures and indeed on some of the Russian military figures.”
He said Russia had a choice: to continue backing the “toxic” Assad regime, “or to work with the rest of the world to find a solution for Syria, a political solution.”
Last week’s nerve gas attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, which killed more than 80 people, stirred Trump — who was previously cool to the idea of U.S. intervention — to strike for the first time at Assad’s forces. U.S. warships fired 59 cruise missiles at the Syrian air base from which the U.S. believes the attack was launched.
The U.S. strikes drew support from other Western leaders who have been uncertain what to make of Trump’s foreign policy. Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said Sunday that Europe’s broad support for the U.S. military strikes had contributed to a “renewed harmony” between the United States and its partners.
In a gesture weighted with symbolism, Tillerson visited the site of a World War II-era Nazi massacre in central Italy on Monday. He said the United States was rededicating itself to hold to account “any and all” who commit crimes against innocent people.
Tillerson accompanied Alfano to Santa’Anna di Stazzema, where 560 civilians, including some 130 children, were killed in 1944.
The two-day G-7 meeting in the Tuscan walled city of Lucca is bringing together the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Britain, Japan and Canada, the U.S. and current G-7 president Italy, as well as European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
Ahead of the full meeting, Tillerson held bilateral talks with G-7 counterparts including Britain’s Johnson, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.
Kishida said that “Japan supports the U.S. commitment in trying to take responsibility to prevent spread and use of chemical weapons and we confirmed Japan and the U.S. will continue to work together (in that effort).”
Tillerson also spoke by phone with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, whose government insists Assad should play no role in Syria’s future.
The G-7 meeting comes as the United States is sending a Navy carrier strike group toward the Korean Peninsula in a show of strength following North Korea’s persistent ballistic missile tests.
It is also taking place amid an ongoing terror threat that was underscored by the Palm Sunday bombing of Coptic churches in Egypt claimed by the Islamic State group, and another truck attack on European soil, this time in Stockholm, on Friday.
Syria, though, topped the agenda.
The chemical attack has sent a new chill through relations between the West and Moscow, which backs Assad diplomatically and militarily and denies Syrian forces used chemical weapons.
Russia planned to put forward a proposal on Monday for an independent and impartial investigation of the attack, a spokesman for German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said, calling it “a good and important sign.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, whose government is another backer of Assad’s, also called for an independent inquiry under U.N. auspices when he spoke Monday to Alfano, Italy’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
The United States is fighting Islamic State group militants in Syria, but had previously avoided striking government forces, largely out of concern about being pulled into a military conflict with Russia, whose relations with the West have been on a downward spiral for several years.
Russia was kicked out of the club of industrialized nations, formerly the G-8, after its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and assistance for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The flipside of the talk about sanctions from Johnson and other diplomats is an implicit promise that Moscow could be allowed to rejoin the G-8, if it drops its support for Assad.
“I think the Russians need a way out and a way forward,” Johnson said.
The British foreign secretary had been due to visit Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Moscow before the G-7 meeting. Johnson canceled the trip at the last minute, saying the chemical attack had “changed the situation fundamentally.”
His decision drew taunts from opponents that Johnson was a “poodle” of the Americans who had been told to stay home so he would not upstage Tillerson.
But Johnson said Monday that “it is the Americans who have changed the game by using those cruise missiles,” and it was right for the rest of the G-7 unite behind Tillerson.
Washington has sent mixed signals about whether it shares the determination of allies such as Britain that Assad must be removed from power.
After the April 4 chemical attack, Trump said his attitude toward Assad “has changed very much” and Tillerson said “steps are underway” to organize a coalition to remove him from power.
However, Tillerson said in television interviews that aired Sunday that the top U.S. priority in the region remains the defeat of Islamic State militants.
Among European nations, there are also differences. While Britain stressed pressure on Russia and removing Assad, Germany’s Gabriel emphasized that Russia and Iran must be part of the peace process for Syria.
“Now is the right moment to talk about how we can push for a peace process in Syria within the international community — with Russia, with Iran, with Saudi Arabia, with Europe, with the United States,” he said as he arrived. “To prevent military violence to escalate on and on, it’s all about this.”
Colleen Barry in Milan and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.