Syrian crisis overshadows summit on Ukraine conflict

Timetable for Minsk accords delayed as local elections put on long finger

Stiff handshake: Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and French president Francois Hollande meet for bilateral talks before a summit to discuss the conflict in Ukraine in Paris. Photograph: Michel Euler/Reuters.

Stiff handshake: Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and French president Francois Hollande meet for bilateral talks before a summit to discuss the conflict in Ukraine in Paris. Photograph: Michel Euler/Reuters.

 

A long-scheduled summit of the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine in Paris yesterday was intended to bring new dynamism to the peace process in Ukraine.

It was instead overshadowed by Russia’s military intervention in Syria. The Russian president Vladimir Putin was the focus of diplomatic and media attention.

Mr Putin exchanged a stiff handshake with President François Hollande on arrival. In a bilateral meeting , Mr Hollande reiterated French conditions for co-operating with Russia in Syria. “I told President Putin that air strikes must concern Da’esh and Da’esh alone,” Mr Hollande said later, using the pejorative Arab acronym for Islamic State.

Mr Hollande also said Syrian president Bashar al-Assad must stop attacking civilians, in particular with chlorine gas, and that a political transition must result in his departure.

Earlier in the day, the governments of France and Germany – along with those of Britain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US – expressed “deep concern” in a joint statement that Russian Air Force attacks on Hama and Homs on Thursday “led to civilian casualities and did not target Islamic State”.

As if responding to criticism, Russia announced that it bombed Raqqa, the IS stronghold in northern Syria, on Friday. Mr Hollande seemed to dismiss the announcement, saying “They made one air raid on Raqqa and others on zones controlled by the opposition.”

Bargaining chip

President Petro Poroshenko almost seemed sidelined at the summit. He reportedly fears that Ukraine will end up as a bargaining chip in the Syrian conflict. Mr Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel denied any linkage.

“Just because Vladimir Putin and Russia are engaged in Syria does not mean we should have a different attitude towards what is happening in Ukraine,” Mr Hollande said.

Yet analysts point to the coincidence between the ceasefire in Donbas, which began on September 1st, and Russia’s military build-up in Syria.

By making himself master of the game in Damascus, Mr Putin may hope to freeze the Ukraine conflict, permanently destabilising that country, while obtaining an end to the western sanctions that have damaged Russia’s economy.

The EU was to have reassessed sanctions in December, in light of progress in implementing last February’s Minsk accords. But one of the mainstays of the agreement, the holding of local elections throughout Ukraine, including in the pro-Russian east, has been postponed.

“The October 18th elections cannot be held because conditions are not met,” Mr Hollande said. “An electoral law must be voted, after which there will be a 90-day delay.”

The nature of autonomy for Luhansk and Donetsk, which comprise the Donbas region, remains an obstacle. So does the return to control by the Kiev government of the border between Donbas and Russia.

“None of the articles of Minsk have been respected completely,” Dr Merkel said. “The ceasefire didn’t start on the first day. Heavy weapons have still not been withdrawn. There is hope based on the fact that the two sides are talking. Obviously we cannot go quickly. Obviously it cannot be done without difficulty.”

Mr Hollande said progress had been greater on military than political aspects of the Minsk accords. A recent agreement on the withdrawal of small calibre weapons would come into force at midnight. Leaders hoped for comparable progress regarding heavy weapons.