By Tim Peel, Articles Editor

Following an allegedly deadly chemical weapon attack in the Syrian rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed 80 and injured hundreds more last week,[1] The U.S. and U.K. had planned to push for additional punitive sanctions against Russia at a G7 meeting this week.[2] While there is no evidence of Russian involvement in the attack, Russia is widely seen in the West as Syria’s key ally and, in at least one commentator’s estimation, a facilitator to “one of the worst regimes in modern human history.”[3]

Already tense relations between the West and Russia escalated further following a swift U.S. response to the chemical attack last week, involving an air strike that targeted a Syrian air base and aircraft.[4] Russia responded angrily, with President Putin characterizing the missile strike as “an act of aggression against a sovereign state delivered in violation of international law under a far-fetched pretext” and further threatened to cut off a hotline between the U.S. and Russia designed to prevent “unintentional violence” between the two countries in Syria. [5] However, some still hope that the West can persuade Russia to lean heavily on Bashar al-Assad to honor the terms of an earlier ceasefire agreement,[6] or abandon support for the regime altogether.[7]

While the precise parameters of additional sanctions was unclear, reports claimed that support for imposing them was cool in some quarters of the G7, particularly among countries belonging to the EU.[8] These reports were validated when, on the first of a two-day G7 summit meeting, members failed to agree to impose further sanctions.[9] EU members favor waiting for the results of an independent investigation into the alleged chemical attack in Syria,[10] while the U.S. and U.K. see the G7 stalemate as having granted Russia a “window of opportunity” to realize that its continued alliance with al-Assad is “no longer in its strategic interest.”[11]

How the future relationship between G7 nations and Russia will play out into the future will likely depend upon Russia’s continued involvement in Syria and any assurances that are exchanged between the Russian leadership and the U.S. during Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow. Patience maybe wearing thin, however, and Tillerson’s comments before arriving in Moscow were ominous when he stated “[i]t is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end.”[12] What may be clear, however, is unlikely to be easy.

[1] Syria ‘Chemical Attack’: What We Know, BBC (Apr. 7, 2017), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-39500947.

[2] Joe Watts, G7 Summit: EU and Germany ‘Cool’ on Britain and America’s Plan for Russia Sanctions Apr. 11, 2017, 09:30), http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/g7-summit-russia-sanctions-syria-chemical-attack-uk-us-eu-germany-block-boris-johnson-khan-sheikhoun-a7677626.html.

[3] Colin Dwyer, Syria Casts Long Shadow Across Rex Tillerson’s Big Trip to Italy and Russia, NPR (Apr. 10, 2017), http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/04/10/523260477/syria-casts-long-shadow-across-rex-tillersons-big-trip-to-italy-and-russia (quoting Senator Chris Coons in an interview with NPR).

[4] Syria War: U.S. Missiles ‘Took Out 20% of Aircraft,’ BBC (Apr. 10, 2017), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-39561102

[5] Dwyer, supra note 3.

[6] Syria War: G7 Fails to Agree Sanctions on Russia after ‘Chemical Attack,’ BBC (Apr. 11, 2017), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39565700

[7] See Watts, supra note 2.

[8] Id.

[9] See Syria War: G7 Fails to Agree Sanctions on Russia after ‘Chemical Attack,’ supra note 6.

[10] Id.

[11] Watts, supra note 2.

[12] Syria War: G7 Fails to Agree Sanctions on Russia after ‘Chemical Attack,’ supra note 6.