Tuesday

21st Feb 2017

EU piles sanctions on Syria, raises possibility of UN troops

A french-trained lawyer, the head of a family-run militia and the deputy interior minister are among 18 new people added to EU sanctions on Syria, as France calls for UN forces to help keep the peace.

The new EU measures against President Bashar Assad's regime entered into force on Tuesday (15 November) with the publication of the new blacklist in the bloc's Official Journal.

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  • Detritus of violence in Syria - commentators have asked who is supplying weapons to anti-government opposition (Photo: syriana2011)

The journal named lawyer Bassam Sabbagh, a member of the Paris bar and the chief of the Damascus-based firm Sabbagh & Associates, as providing "financial support for the regime." It added Abdullah Beri ("in charge of pro-government militia involved in the crackdown") and deputy interior minister Saqr Khayr Beq ("responsible for the use of violence against the civilian population") to the list in a sign of the complex mix of forces involved in the fighting and the fact almost all senior government members were already persona non grata.

In a direct blow to Assad's finances, worth €10.7 billion in the 2007 to 2013 period, the new sanctions also stopped the European Investment Bank from making payments on existing infrastructure contracts. The sanctions came into force the same day as a previously agreed ban on EU purchasing of Syrian oil, a move that will cost Assad €9 million a day in lost trade.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday underlined that the Union is seeking regime change by peaceful means only despite the fact the situation increasingly mirrors the build-up to military strikes in Libya.

The Arab League at the weekend delivered a mandate for tougher international action by suspending Syria from its club and called for "reflection" on how to protect civilians. The Istanbul-based opposition leadership, the self-styled Syrian National Council, earlier called for a no-fly zone.

Dutch foreign minister Uri Rosenthal told press in the EU capital that Assad's regime has entered its endgame. "We are hearing already that the Syrians are running out of cash, so the sanctions are going to work," he said.

French foreign minister Alain Juppe said the UN should consider sending peacekeepers: "We should think how to protect the civilian population, for example by intervention of observers from the United Nations. We are already to discuss this with the Syrian opposition council and with the UN."

The Arab League decision puts extra pressure on Assad's main ally, Russia, to relax its opposition to UN-level action.

Who is arming the rebels?

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov continued to talk tough on Monday, however. He told the Interfax news agency that Western countries arm-twisted their Arab friends to suspend Syria and all-but accused them of supplying arms to anti-government fighters.

"We consider it [the suspension] improper. It looks like it was planned ahead of time," he said. "Nobody is commenting on it and no one is admitting it, but the facts are impossible to contradict: weapons are being smuggled into Syria from Turkey and Iraq ... Armed extremists are using peaceful demonstrations to provoke Syrian government violence."

Syrian authorities and a number of independent commentators have in recent weeks also cast doubt on the "fable" that the upheaval is a peaceful grass-roots movement, as in Tunisia.

Bouthaina Shaaban, a top aide to President Assad, told the Independent, a British daily, the stream of YouTube videos highlighting government violence tells one side of the story.

"Early in the crisis, our army and police and security services paid terrible sacrifices but they were told not to shoot at demonstrators. I really don't know why people should make things up," she said. "There is obviously a sector which is interested in conflict and not in reforms. They are all given money to shoot at demonstrators and the security forces – or they are extremist fundamentalists ... In Deraa, we found weapons that were Israeli. I told our people they should show these weapons to the media."

The Iran connection

For their part, former CIA officer Robert Baer and former MI6 officer Alastair Crooke earlier told this website Assad regime change is designed to weaken Syria's ally Iran.

The EU ministers on Monday noted Iran should also expect more sanctions after the UN last week accused it of trying to build nuclear weapons.

The German, French and Swedish foreign ministers spoke out in strong terms against a military strike on Iran. But the Netherlands and the UK said "all options remain on the table" in dealing with the emerging regional superpower.

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