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24th Jul 2016

Italy defends bid to delay EU oil ban on Syria

  • Assad poster in Damascus. Massari said the oil embargo is not designed to create 'regime change' from the outside but to help home-grown protesters bring in reforms (Photo: oliverlaumann)

Italy has said that delaying the EU oil embargo on Syria will not make any difference to the regime. But fellow member states believe "there is not a day to lose".

Italian foreign ministry spokesman Maurizio Massari told EUobserver on Wednesday (31 August) that Rome wants the oil ban to come into force on 30 November instead of mid-October, as agreed by most other EU countries.

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He explained the delay will not affect Syrian President Bashar Assad's income because European oil importers have paid up-front for oil deliveries until the November date.

"We only ask for them to come into force one and a half months later to help the expiration of the contracts of oil supply from Syria for several European companies," Massari said. "The contracts have already been paid for by Western European countries including Italy ... This flexibility with the time frame does not alter the strength of the political message that we want to send."

Italian ports in July handled 50 percent of Syrian crude exports to the EU, with some of the oil going to refineries run by Italian firms Eni, IES Italiana and Saras.

Fellow EU members believe the level of violence merits more urgent action, however.

"Since oil exports are 30 percent of the regime's revenue, the sooner you cut this the better, when you see what's happening on the ground - people being killed each day," a diplomat from a large EU country said. "Maybe this is just Italian spin to say 'We are the big boys. We are important [in terms of EU foreign policy in the Middle East]'."

Amnesty International in a report out Wednesday noted that 78 men and 10 boys were murdered in Syrian prisons in the past five months on top of the 2,200 people killed in the streets. Torture - including genital mutilation and burns - played a part in 52 of the prison deaths. Some of the worst atrocities are being committed by irregular militias, the shabiha, whose members are reportedly paid between $40 and $200 a day, but but which are threatening to go on strike because money is running out.

Italy has joined EU appeals for Assad to step down and recalled its ambassador from Damascus. But its close relations with Syria mirror its ties with pre-revolutionary Libya.

Italy in 2009 licenced its top arms firm Finmeccanica to sell 286 parts and 600 hours' worth of technical assistance for Turms targeting equipment, which is mounted on Syria's Soviet-made tanks. "Turms is a top performance tank fire control/sighting system, including stabilised day-night sight for the gunner and panoramic stabilised day-night periscope for the commander," the company blurb says.

Asked if Italy has stopped arms shipments to Syria, Massari said: "I am almost certain, yes."

Meanwhile, the EU oil ban risks doing more harm than good according to Peter Harling, a Damascus-based analyst for the International Crisis Group think-tank.

The sanctions, due to be agreed by EU foreign ministers in Poland this week, may "backfire" because "the regime will pin economic woes on an international conspiracy" he said in an op-ed for Foreign Policy magazine on Wednesday.

For his part, Michel Koutouzis, a Middle East expert whose French company, Lotophages Consulting, advises the EU diplomatic service, said water is more effective than oil in stopping Assad.

"Turkey is very pissed off [with Syria] and it has the possibility to apply real pressure. After all its work on dams, it can cut off Syria's water from one day to the next," he told this website. Recalling events back in 1998, he added: "When [Kurdish separatist leader] Ocalan and [Kurdish militants] the PKK were in Damascus, the Turks got the result they wanted - they got them thrown out pretty quick."

MEPs fear further 'Putinisation' of Turkey

MEPs criticised the harsh crackdown in Turkey after last week's failed coup, and warned that Ankara must not go down the road towards an authoritarian regime, in an extraordinary meeting of the EP's foreign affairs committee.

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