Saturday

25th Mar 2017

Estonian cyclists caught up in EU-Syria sanctions debate

  • Bekaa valley: A historic haven for Syria-linked Arab militants, including Hezbollah (pictured in the poster) and Hamas (Photo: aldask)

The case of seven Estonian cyclists kidnapped in Lebanon is a hidden reason for Estonia's reluctance to back EU sanctions on Syrian officials.

The seven tourists went missing in Masnaa, in the Bekaa valley near the Lebanese-Syrian border, in late March. Their whereabouts remain unknown. But Lebanese security services have said Palestinian militants took the group in revenge for Israel's kidnapping of a Hamas engineer in Ukraine in February and that they are currently being held in Syria.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

Estonia, together with Cyprus and Greece, has voiced the strongest opposition so far to a British proposal to impose a visa ban and asset freeze on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and 15-or-so of his officials responsible for the mass killings of protesters.

Estonian foreign ministry spokeswoman Minna-Liina Lind told EUobserver on Wednesday (4 May) that the EU is moving too fast on Syria. "We think the next step has to be considered more carefully. We need more time for consideration," she said.

Lind added that Tallinn is in talks with Damascus as well as other capitals in the region to get its nationals back. She denied that the kidnapping is behind its opposition to the sanctions, saying "These things should not be linked in that way."

Other EU diplomats said the cyclists are a major factor, however.

"Why are they blocking? Just google 'Estonia' and 'cyclists' or take a look at their foreign ministry website to see what is going on," an EU contact said. "[The] Estonians are concerned that their kidnapped citizens are now in Syria," another EU diplomat noted.

EU countries agreed last week to impose an embargo on sales of weapons and crowd-control equipment to Syria. The UK at the same time put forward a list of names for potential extra sanctions if the regime did not react positively.

With the death toll mounting over the past six days, the vast majority of EU countries are keen to activate the British list.

Speaking ahead of internal EU talks on Syria on Thursday and Friday, a French diplomat said: "We can make a move by the end of this week or early next week ... and we want Bashar [to face sanctions]." Another EU diplomat said: "It's around 25 [EU countries] against two."

Portugal dropped its objections to the second round of punitive measures on Tuesday. But Cyprus and Greece, the two EU countries lying closest to Syria and having a history of close diplomatic and business relations, are continuing to raise "concerns."

A Greek source told this website on Wednesday: "We are following the discussions and we want the EU to speak with one voice." A Cypriot source said: "We aren't going into the discussions with the intention of blocking a consensus. But we have certain concerns. It's to do with taking a step-by-step approach and Cyprus is not alone in this."

A Beirut-based Syrian opposition activist told this website that the EU arms embargo is a joke but that the travel ban could make al-Assad think twice.

"If they stop selling tear gas, OK. But there are enough weapons in Syria already to kill every Syrian citizen several times over," Malauth Omran (not his real name) said. "He [al-Assad] is already considered a criminal in the eyes of all the Syrian people, so if he thinks he won't be able to travel outside of Syria, that would be real pressure."

Omran added that EU threats could be more effective than action.

"Say what you are going to do if he doesn't react by such and such a date. But don't just apply sanctions as a surprise. We need to keep it open for him to leave Syria, if he thinks he is trapped, he will fight to the last drop of blood."

Omran said opposition activists have compiled a list of about 600 full names of people killed by the regime in the past six weeks: "If we have 600 names, that means the real figure is much higher."

Stolen Russian billions ended up in EU states

Illicit money flowing out of Russia ended up in almost every single EU state, an investigation has found, posing questions on the integrity of Europe’s banking systems.

Turkey-EU relations plumb new depths

Turkey’s EU quarrel escalated on all fronts over the weekend, amid fresh “Nazi” and “terrorism” jibes. “Not all Turks are little Erdogans,” Juncker said.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Gaming & Betting Association60 Years Rome Treaty – 60 Years Building an Internal Market
  2. Malta EU 2017New EU Rules to Prevent Terrorism and Give More Rights to Victims Approved
  3. European Jewish Congress"Extremists Still Have Ability and Motivation to Murder in Europe" Says EJC President
  4. European Gaming & Betting AssociationAudiovisual Media Services Directive to Exclude Minors from Gambling Ads
  5. ILGA-EuropeTime for a Reality Check on International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
  6. UNICEFHuman Cost to Refugee and Migrant Children Mounts Up One Year After EU-Turkey Deal
  7. Malta EU 2017Council Adopts New Rules to Improve Safety of Medical Devices
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Energy Research: How to Reach 100 Percent Renewable Energy
  9. Party of European SocialistsWe Must Renew Europe for All Europeans
  10. MEP Tomáš ZdechovskýThe European Commission Has Failed in Its Fight Against Food Waste
  11. ILGA-EuropeEP Recognises Discrimination Faced by Trans & Intersex People
  12. Nordic Council of Ministers25 Nordic Bioeconomy Cases for Sustainable Change