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27th Feb 2021

EU ponders new sanctions on Syria, Iran, Russia

  • The war in Syria has displaced 16 million people, EU ministers noted (Photo: Reuters/Abdalrhman Ismail)

EU foreign ministers have discussed new sanctions on Syria, Iran, and Russia in light of the chemical warfare in Syria.

The debate comes amid a warning by British and US authorities that Russia stands ready to react with a cyber strike against the West.

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  • Any sanctions on Iran would not be linked to nuclear deal, Federica Mogherini said (Photo: European Union)

The sanctions talks, held by EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday (16 April), focused on which names to add to an existing blacklist of 240 Syrian officials and 67 entities.

"The European Union will continue to consider further restrictive measures against Syria as long as the repression continues," they said in a joint statement afterward.

They voiced "understanding" for US air and naval strikes on Syrian chemical weapons facilities, carried out over the weekend with British and French support.

They also discussed how to "put pressure" on Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's sponsors, Iran and Russia, to make him stop gassing his own people and to start peace talks.

The EU has listed 82 Iranians and one entity over human rights violations, with Germany, France, and the UK proposing on Monday to add new names to the list.

It has listed 150 Russian officials and 38 entities and imposed economic sanctions over Russia's invasion of Ukraine, with some ministers saying the EU should now go after Russian oligarchs the same way the US has done.

"There's a lot of trust in the the E3 countries [Germany, France, and the UK], but we didn't reach a decision about the extra sanctions [on Iran] today," Irish minister Simon Coveney said.

EU foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini said the Iran measures, if and when they came, would be linked strictly to Syria, and would have nothing to do with its nuclear non-proliferation deal.

"This is not linked to the JCPOA [the nuclear deal], this is linked to Iran's decisions on the Syrian war," she said.

EU foreign ministers also held wide-ranging talks on Russia relations on Monday, in the light of Russia's own chemical attack against a former spy in the UK in March.

There was no specific discussion about Russia sanctions due to Syria, but some ministers said the EU should tighten the screws on Russia due to its aggressive behaviour more broadly speaking.

"We should really also target the [Russian] oligarchs, those schemes which support the forces which really make decisions in the region," Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevicius told press.

The US recently listed several pro-Kremlin oligarchs, such as Oleg Deripaska, and the UK has signalled it might go after Russian wealth in its offshore funds.

But Russia has laid the grounds to strike back with a massive cyber attack which could target British infrastructure and businesses, UK intelligence agencies warned in a public notice on Wednesday.

Keep talking

Mogherini and German foreign minister Heiko Maas said on Monday the EU had to keep talking to all the regional players to try to stop the Syria conflict.

"We are one of the few who are talking about Syria with Iran, so it's very important to keep that channel open," she said.

Maas said: "Whether you like it or not, without Russia you will not be able to resolve this conflict".

Meanwhile, the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, claimed that the EU statement on Syria air strikes gave him and his UK counterpart unequivocal support.

"The EU is united … at a moment of great seriousness," Le Drian said.

The EU comment on "understanding" was less strident that Nato's, amid Dutch and Irish worries that Britain, France, and the US had acted without a UN say-so.

Syria's actions left the allies "no choice other than to act the way they did," Nato head Jens Stoltenberg said on Monday.

UN angst

"We'd much rather have seen action taken with a UN mandate," Ireland's Coveney said. Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok added: "The only solution [to the Syria war] is a peace process through the [UN] Security Council."

Even Russia-friendly states such as Italy and Finland accepted France's evidence of Syria's chemical weapons guilt, however.

They also acknowledged that Russia had used its UN veto to block a mandate to stop the Syrian regime.

"We offered our allies our political support, stressing that we don't want to consider what happened as the start of an escalation," Italy's Angelo Alfano said.

Finnish foreign minister Timo Soini added: "We gave our support to the air strikes by the US, France and the UK in Syria. The attack was of the right proportion because of the use of chemical weapons".

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