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22nd Feb 2020

Bahrain, Syria and Yemen 'playing with fire'

  • The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Arabian Sea in 2010 (Photo: cusnc.navy.mil)

A Hungarian junior minister speaking in the name of EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton has said that Bahrain, Syria and Yemen should beware of Libya-type military intervention.

Zsolt Nemeth, Hungary's deputy foreign minister, made the remarks at a European Parliament debate in Strasbourg on Wednesday (6 April). He spoke on behalf of Ashton, who from time-to-time asks people from the rotating EU presidency to step in when she is busy.

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With NGOs reporting that Bahrain has so far killed 23 people, Syria 122 and Yemen 63, Nemeth said: "We've been discussing these three countries, where there are authoritarian regimes which are also playing with fire, and where there is a risk of intervention."

"I think we have sent out a very clear and important signal that came from the high representative [Ashton] and that is a very crucial message to these three countries - they know that in Libya and also in the Ivory Coast there have been military interventions and that's always a possibility."

Referring to UN Security Council resolution 1973 allowing strikes on Libya, he added: "Over the past three weeks both the European and the international community have shaped a very clear philosophy under the motto of 'the responsibility to protect' … and that should be a warning sign to Yemen, Bahrain and indeed to all of those countries which maintain authoritarian regimes."

Ashton spokesman Michael Mann told EUobserver that Nemeth's "nuanced" words should not be seen as aggressive.

The Nemeth-Ashton line echoes French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who told press in Brussels shortly after French jets bombed Gaddafi that: "Every ruler should understand, and especially every Arab ruler should understand that the reaction of the international community and of Europe will from this moment on each time be the same."

British and French diplomats agree with Nemeth "in principle." But France has quietly rowed back on Sarkozy's statement in recent days, with diplomats briefing that the level of violence in Syria, for example, is nothing like that in Libya and that there is "nothing on the table" in terms of military planning.

For its part, the US is against action in places where its strategic interests do not coincide with its values.

Bahrain is home to the US Fifth Fleet and Bahrain's regional allies are part of the anti-Gaddafi coalition. Conflict in Syria could spread to Israel, Iran and pro-Syrian militants Hamas and Hezbollah in Gaza and Lebanon. Meanwhile, a power vacuum in Yemen could turn parts of it into an al-Qaeda stronghold.

Nemeth's bullish comments came after MEPs from across the political spectrum attacked Ashton for issuing statements instead of taking action.

The centre-right EPP group aims to ask her in a resolution on Thursday to consider imposing an EU asset freeze and visa ban on members of the three regimes. Several MEPs also called for an arms embargo, a snap session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and a freeze on EU-Syria talks on an Association Agreement.

Finnish Liberal deputy Anneli Jaatenmaki said: "I am angry … the letters we have received from Ashton are not any kind of strategy, we should stop sending empty messages."

Non-attached British MEP Diane Dodds said Ashton's contribution is "nonsense" and her European External Action Service is a waste of money: "We need much more than the odd telephone call or a statement calling for this or that."

In other parts of his analysis, Nemeth said there is an "increasing risk that radical elements will prevail" in Bahrain and that there is "no hard evidence" that Iran is behind the protests, as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have claimed.

He said targeted sanctions "are an option" and that the EU has power to shape events in the region: "An awful lot depends on us. How the Arab spring will end depends to a great extent on us."

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