Monday

20th May 2019

France predicts Syrian leader will be next to fall

French foreign minister Alain Juppe has predicted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will be next to fall in the Arab Spring, even as the EU pinned its hopes on Turkey to help stop violence.

Speaking to press after an EU foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg on Monday (20 June), Juppe said: "Some people think there is still time for him to change and to engage in a reform process ... As for me, I doubt it. I think the point of no return has been reached. In any case, today's declaration doesn't change anything."

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  • Al-Assad (r) on a visit to France in 2010 (Photo: elysee.fr)

Juppe's remark came after Al-Assad on TV earlier in the day promised to make reforms but also blamed unrest on a "virus" which must be "eradicated" in language reminiscent of Colonel Gaddafi's pre-Nato air strike talk of opposition "cockroaches" and "rats."

Al-Assad's forces stand accused by rights groups of murdering 1,300 people, including torture and mutilation of children.

"The speech today was disappointing," EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton said.

The EU ministers' communique on Monday included the statement: "The EU acknowledges the efforts by Turkey and other regional partners on the different aspects of the crisis, in particular the humanitarian aspects, and will work with them to address the situation in Syria."

The line was inserted in the hope that Turkey will play a bigger role in curbing violence. Cyprus and Greece, which are hostile to Turkey due to its military presence in northern Cyprus, had earlier blocked the wording.

Going into the Luxembourg meeting, UK foreign minister William Hague said: "I hope our Turkish colleagues bring every pressure to bear with a clear message that President al-Assad is losing legitimacy and must make reforms or step aside."

Ersat Hurmuzulu, an aide to the Turkish president, later said: "The demands in this field will be for a positive response to these issues within a short period that does not exceed a week." He added that if Syria does not act quickly, Turkey would remove its "cover" for "foreign intervention."

One EU diplomat said Hurmuzulu meant Turkey would lobby UN Security Council members to support an EU resolution condemning Al-Assad. Another EU diplomat said it might mean a green light for Libya-type strikes.

A Turkish diplomat said: "I do not think that one should interpret this statement as encouragement for military intervention in Syria, which in any case is not envisaged by anyone."

EU leaders at a summit in Brussels on Thursday are likely to extend by 10 or 12 people and commercial entities an existing list of 23 Syrian regime members facing an EU travel ban and asset freeze.

There is little faith the move will make a mark, however. "I can't speak for all 23 million Syrians. But the people I've met, both ordinary people and officials, do not look to the EU. After our track record of supporting Israel and the US, they think we are on the side of the bad guys. They see everything we do as a conspiracy to undermine Syria ... This is why we need Turkey, because Turkey really has influence in Syria," an EU diplomatic source said.

The Arab Spring has so far toppled three leaders, in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.

Belarus tycoon under EU ban

EU ministers on Monday also added four people and three companies to an existing sanctions list of 175 regime members in Belarus, and imposed an arms embargo.

The list includes Vladimir Peftiev, a businessman said to be President Alexander Lukashenko's "private banker" and three of his companies: arms-maker Beltechexport, investment vehicle BT Telecommunications and gambling firm Sport-Pari. UK daily The Independent lists the other three as Kiril Chubkavets, Andrey Kazheunikau and Ludmilla Grachova - officials involved in putting opposition leaders in jail.

Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorksi and Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt spiced up the decision with provocative statements.

Sikroski tweeted that Lukashenko "has a choice of two paths: to democracy or to [the international tribunal in] The Hague." Bildt said the president has brought his country to economic ruin: "We [in the EU] are of course focusing on the situation in Greece, but Belarus might be even worse."

This story was altered at 10am Brussels time on Tuesday, adding the quote from a Turkish diplomat

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