BRUSSELS/PARIS The European Union will not pay towards rebuilding a post-war Syria if Moscow and Damascus leave no space in the future for opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, according to sources and EU documents.
For weeks, Syrian, Russian and Iranian firepower has pounded rebels - including those backed by the West and Turkey - in what was their main urban stronghold of Aleppo. On Tuesday, thousands of people fled the city where defeat of the rebels seemed imminent.
Establishing full control over Aleppo would mark government forces' biggest battlefield victory yet in the conflict, which has raged for nearly six years, killing more than 300,000 people.
But, even if the rebels are defeated, the EU says the prospects for peace are poor as Damascus would face years of guerrilla warfare and the country could fall apart if power is not decentralised or devolved to give the opposition a role.
"The EU will provide support for Syria's reconstruction only once a credible political transition is firmly under way," the EU leaders will say on Thursday, according to a draft statement prepared for their meeting in Brussels and seen by Reuters.
The EU is the world's largest aid donor and both the World Bank and the United Nations have said reconstruction of Syria will cost billions - something that would be extremely difficult for Russia to handle alone.
"It is out of the question to finance a Syria under the control of Assad ... The EU and France will not pay for the Russians ... We will not pay for a false peace," said a senior French diplomat.
"This is one of our few pressure levers on the Russians."
The bloc's top diplomat Federica Mogherini has been delivering this message to Middle Eastern regional players - some of which are waging proxy wars in Syria - for several weeks, sources say.
The EU has already signalled it will press for more sanctions on Damascus. But it is not ready to impose any on Russia over the war in Syria.
"The EU would normally have a key role in reconstruction. But if they create this monster there, we just won't pay for it. It'll be their responsibility," one EU official said, referring to Damascus, Moscow and their allies in the war.
Encouraged by November's U.S. presidential election victory by Donald Trump, who has vowed to improve Washington's ties with Moscow, the Kremlin has intensified its campaign in Syria.
An internal document prepared by Mogherini's service, which was also seen by Reuters, for her contacts with top officials from countries including Qatar, Iran and Turkey sticks to the same message: that Assad's opponents must have a role in the future of Syria.
Its stipulations include an "inclusive" political system to ensure "broad social and political representation".
(Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Louise Ireland and Richard Lough)