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Syria top of agenda as G7 foreign ministers meet in Italy

Last week’s suspected chemical attack in Syria and Russia’s support for the Assad regime are set to top the agenda as G7 foreign ministers gather for a meeting in Italy on Monday.

Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, struck a hardline note over the weekend, telling CBS that the Russians had “failed in their commitment to the international community” by not preventing the Syrian regime from carrying out the attack on a rebel-held town in Idlib province.

He said there was no evidence to suggest Russia was involved in the attack, but argued that it had agreed to “be the guarantor of the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles” and that “the result of their failure has led to the killing of more children and innocents” .

The meeting in the Italian city of Lucca brings together foreign ministers from the US and Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.

It had been expected that ministers would focus on hotspots such as Libya, Iran and Ukraine, but top of the agenda now is the attack on Khan Sheikhun, which killed at least 87 people, and the US cruise missiles fired at a Syrian airbase in retaliation.

Tillerson is due to travel to Moscow on Tuesday and has pledged to take a “clear and coordinated message” to his scheduled talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, said at the weekend that she saw regime change in Syria as one of the Trump administration’s priorities in the country. “There’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime,” Haley told CNN, while reiterating that defeating Isis was still the number one policy goal. “If you look at his actions, if you look at the situation, it’s going to be hard to see a government that’s peaceful and stable with Assad.”

The US missile strike marked the first time Washington has intervened directly against the Assad regime, which is fighting a civil war with the backing of Russia and Iran.

Tillerson arrived in Tuscany late on Sunday, and on Monday morning he briefly met Japan’s foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, before attending a second world war memorial at the site of a Nazi massacre in Sant’Anna di Stazzema, near Lucca. He was then due to hold a series of bilateral talks before the start of the G7 meeting in the afternoon.

Washington’s missile strike drew sharp criticism from Iran and North Korea and put the Trump administration on a diplomatic collision course with Moscow.

Italy has arranged a meeting on Tuesday between the G7 ministers and their counterparts from Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar. Italian media said the aim was “to avert a dangerous military escalation”.

Boris Johnson is reportedly expected to call for new sanctions against Russia if it refuses to back down from its support for Assad. The UK foreign secretary cancelled a scheduled visit to Moscow on Monday, saying his priority was now “to continue contact with the US and others”.

He called on Russia to do “everything possible to bring about a political settlement in Syria and work with the rest of the international community to ensure that the shocking events of the last week are never repeated”.

Tillerson would “deliver that clear and coordinated message to the Russians”, he said.

The Russian foreign ministry said Johnson’s cancellation displayed a “fundamental misunderstanding or lack of knowledge of the events in Syria, Russia’s efforts to settle that crisis and the general objectives of diplomacy”.