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29th Apr 2017

EU countries wary of oil sanctions on Syria

  • Oil tanker: Oil revenues are said to provide some 30% of the Syrian regime's income (Photo: European Community, 2006)

EU sanctions on Syrian oil and gas are a distant prospect for now. But the bloc is looking to add more regime members and security-sector companies to its blacklist.

A handful of EU countries raised the prospect of future energy sanctions on Syria at a meeting of the bloc's Political and Security Committee (PSC) in Brussels on Thursday (4 August).

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One EU diplomat who took part in the talks told EUobserver the proposals were couched in vague language. "At least one member state spoke of the possibility of enlarging sanctions in future to much broader economic measures. The words 'oil' and 'gas' were not mentioned. But this was an allusion to the oil and gas area," the contact said.

Another EU diplomatic source said that any oil measures would require a discussion at EU foreign minister level, with the next ministerial scheduled for 2 September in Poland. "The idea is to put together an options paper [on economic sanctions] for ministers to discuss at a later stage," the source noted.

The prevailing mood in the PSC was that economic sanctions would rebound by hurting ordinary Syrians by, for example, resulting in petrol shortages for small businesses.

Syria currently exports around 150,000 barrels a day of heavy crude oil mostly to France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. A number of EU companies are also involved in oil and gas extraction and exploration in the country - including Gulfsands Petroleum, Royal Dutch Shell and Total.

Syria's oil sector is tiny by international standards but provides around €1.8 billion a year in revenue, or 30 percent of government income, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The PSC meeting instead charged EU ambassadors in Damascus with drawing up names of extra regime associates and of Syrian companies directly involved in aiding the repression to add to the bloc's existing blacklist of 35 individuals and four entities.

An EU diplomat said the extra measures could be put in place next week. The contact added that the number of new names will be small because "all or almost all" the people who count in Syria are already on the list.

PSC ambassadors also asked the European External Action Service (EEAS) to try to mobilise neighbouring Arab countries to speak out against President Bashar Assad's actions. The Arab League, in contrast to its reaction on Libya, has stayed silent on Syria.

The twin-track diplomacy and sanctions approach also envisages fresh EU action at the UN Security Council (UNSC).

EEAS chief Catherine Ashton on Thursday joined EU countries in welcoming Wednesday's UNSC statement condemning the Syrian massacres. But EU members on the UNSC - France, Germany, Portugal and the UK - plan to renew their push for a more weighty resolution using tougher language in time for the council's next discussion on Syria on 10 August if the killings do not stop.

"The biggest problem is Russia. The Russians are quite trigger-happy themselves so they do not want to see a precedent of the UNSC publishing resolutions condemning countries which fire on their own people," an EU diplomat said.

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