April 7, 2017 / 10:32 AM / 4 months ago

Top EU officials offer cautious endorsement of Trump strikes in Syria

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker holds a news conference after meeting Swiss President Doris Leuthard at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, April 6, 2017.Francois Lenoir

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Two top EU officials on Friday offered cautious endorsement of U.S. President Donald Trump's missile strikes on a Syrian airbase.

The sharp escalation of Washington's military engagement in the Syrian war came after a chemical attack - which the West says was carried out by Damascus - killed dozens of people in an area held by rebels seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

"US strikes show needed resolve against barbaric chemical attacks. EU will work with the US to end brutality in Syria," Donald Tusk, the chairman of EU leaders, said on Twitter.

The head of the bloc's executive European Commission said he "understood" efforts to deter any more chemical attacks.

"The US has informed the EU that these strikes were limited and seek to deter further chemical weapons atrocities," Jean-Claude Juncker said in a statement. "The repeated use of such weapons must be answered.

"There is a clear distinction between air strikes on military targets and the use of chemical weapons against civilians."

The European Union supports Syrian opposition and some moderate rebels negotiating in U.N.-mediated talks with representatives of Damascus, which in turn has the political and military backing of Russia and Iran.

The talks have long been stalled and the war, which is in its seventh year, has killed more than 400,000 people, displaced millions inside Syria and set off a wave of refugees seeking shelter in neighbouring countries as well as the EU.

But the bloc's role in international peace efforts has been largely marginal as it lacks influence on the ground, where Russia's military intervention has given Assad the upper hand.

The bloc is the largest aid donor in Syria, and has threatened it will not pay for reconstruction of the country if Assad and his allies take full control by wiping out the opposition.

The EU says a "credible political transition" must start first with the aim of giving the opposition and Syria's various ethnic and religious groups political representation.

France and Britain have led calls for Assad to go but some other EU states, including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Spain and Italy, have been more dovish.

Editing by Andrew Roche

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