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4th Apr 2020

EU oil sanctions on Syria are 'a done deal'

  • Shell spokesman: 'We are a law-abiding operation, like any other decent company' (Photo: Antonio)

EU countries have agreed to impose an oil embargo on Syria in the hope of accelerating the fall of President Bashar Assad by cutting off his money.

Diplomats in the Political and Security Committee in Brussels on Friday (19 August) tasked the European External Action Service (EEAS) with drawing up legal proposals for the oil ban. The new measures will be discussed early next week and are expected to come into force in a matter of days.

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France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK backed the move. Cyprus, Greece and Italy voiced worries it would hurt ordinary Syrians but did not put up strong opposition.

One EU diplomat said the oil ban is designed to speed up regime change. "The general feeling of today's meeting is that we are now entering into a transition phase [in Syria] ... and when we are looking at transition, then perhaps political considerations outweigh economic considerations [for EU oil companies]," he said.

Another EU diplomat told this website: "The Brits said Syrian people are suffering anyway and are willing to accept some temporary hardships. The Dutch said we need smart sanctions minimising the impact on ordinary people, but we can't use this as an excuse for half-hearted measures."

A third diplomatic contact said: "The fact that the 27 countries have tasked [the EEAS] to draw up legal proposals suggests it's pretty much a done deal."

The legal proposals will also look at: extending sanctions to Syrian banks and telecommunications firms; suspending European Investment Bank assistance; and imposing visa bans and asset freezes on people "supporting the regime or benefitting from its actions." Current sanctions cover only people directly involved in violent repression.

In the run-up to the new mandate, the EU will add 15 more Syrian officials and five firms to its existing blacklist of 35 people and four companies.

The hawkish mood comes after Syria this week used gunboats to shell the city of Latakia despite international appeals. It also comes after a UN study chronicling reports of mass murder over the past five months.

EU diplomats in Damascus are currently analysing post-Assad scenarios, amid fears his fall could lead to internecine conflict between ordinary Sunni Muslims, Sunni Muslim radicals and the ruling Alawite Muslim minority.

Syria exports over 95 percent of its oil to the EU, with the income accounting for 20 to 30 percent of its state budget.

The three main businesses involved are the UK's Gulfsands Petroleum, Anglo-Dutch company Shell and French firm Total.

Gulfsands Petroleum is the most heavily exposed - it produces 90 percent of its oil in Syria and lost 44 percent of its value since March. It is part-owned by Rami Makhlouf, a Syrian oligarch who is already on the EU blacklist.

A spokesman for Shell told EUobserver it owns a "minority stake" in Syria's Al Furat Petroleum Company.

Shell's own ethical code - the Shell General Business Principles (SGBP) - promises "to conduct business as responsible corporate members of society ... [and] to support fundamental human rights in line with the legitimate role of business."

When asked if its work in Syria is in line with the SGBP, the spokesman said "Shell complies with all laws and sanctions. We are a law-abiding operation, like any other decent company." He added that the code would not allow it to operate in Burma, North Korea or Sudan.

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