20th Oct 2016

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.

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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."

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