April 22, 2018 / 3:11 AM / 3 months ago

German minister urges Russia to cooperate in solving Syria crisis

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Saturday urged Russia to help solve the Syria crisis as he set off for a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) major industrialised nations in Toronto.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas speaks at a news conference in Brussels, Belgium, April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman/Files

The Syrian conflict has badly damaged already strained relations between the West and Russia, which backs President Bashar al-Assad.

The United States, France and Britain conducted missile strikes against Syrian targets this month after a suspected chemical weapons attack that Assad and Moscow deny carrying out.

“We need constructive contributions from Russia to reach a peaceful solution,” Maas told reporters before his flight, adding that this was equally true of the Ukraine conflict, which the G7 foreign ministers are also due to discuss.

Russia is not a member of the G7 and will not be taking part in the meeting.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been very critical of Russia’s involvement in both the Syrian and Ukraine conflicts and backs continued European Union sanctions against Moscow. But Maas hails from her junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats, which has traditionally sought good ties with Russia.

Germany did not take part in the air strikes, but Merkel backed them as a “necessary and appropriate” action to warn Syria against further use of chemical weapons.

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen told Bild am Sonntag newspaper that the German armed forces would have been capable of taking part in the strikes but added: “We weren’t asked this time.”

Since World War Two Germany has been reluctant to get involved in military missions abroad. Its limited engagements abroad have focussed mainly on training, surveillance, medical rescue and peacekeeping.

SYRIAN PEACE TALKS

Von der Leyen said the air strikes in Syria had reinvigorated peace initiatives, adding that it was crucial for the Syria peace talks in Geneva to get off the ground with all participants again.

She said it was necessary to negotiate with Assad’s government to achieve initial steps like a ceasefire and get humanitarian aid to suffering Syrians.

Von der Leyen, a member of Merkel’s conservatives, called for a tough stance against Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying: “President Putin doesn’t value weakness. Chumming up to him or being soft doesn’t make him any friendlier.”

She said it was important to insist that Russia keeps its commitments in the Minsk peace agreement before loosening sanctions imposed against Moscow over the Ukraine conflict.

But she also stressed that it was important to remain willing to talk to Russia.

Next week Maas is due to take part in an international conference on Syria in Brussels. He said humanitarian aid for people in Syria would be the main focus of that meeting.

“I will again affirm our support for the peace process under the aegis of the United Nations. We urgently need a political solution for this conflict that has gone on for far too long,” Maas said.

On Monday Maas will fly to New York, where he will call for Germany to get a non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Von der Leyen said Germany needed to increase its defence budget by several billion euros by 2021 or it would not be able to meet its international commitments.

Reporting by Sabine Siebold and Michelle Martin; Editing by Gareth Jones

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