10th May 2021

Syria sanctions could include suspension of EU aid

  • EU ambassadors are scheduled to meet on Friday to discuss how to up the pressure on the regime of Bashar al-Assad if the violence continues (Photo: anjci)

Syria is facing suspension of EU aid worth €130 million and a freeze on €1.3 billion in European investment funds as further details of sanctions under consideration by the bloc in response to the Arab government's bloody crackdown began to emerge on Wednesday (27 April).

EU ambassadors are scheduled to meet on Friday to discuss how to up the pressure on the regime of Bashar al-Assad if the violence continues. Human rights activists say that some 400 people have been killed in the uprising.

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"We are considering all options," said Michael Mann, the spokesman for EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton.

Speaking to reporters, he added: "It is not acceptable to fire on demonstrators," although he refused to discuss "potential sanctions" against Damascus.

However, Ashton on Wednesday circulated a paper outlining possible options which, according to an EU official, "include suspension" of agreements with the country.

The EU "has quite a few programmes" in partnership with the government, the source added.

Details are being kept tightly guarded but a document released to journalists the same day gave a list of the EU aid funds in the frame beyond the "usual things" that have been imposed against other governments in the wider region involved in repression of pro-democracy forces, including asset freezes and travel bans.

The commission co-finances a number of investment programmes in Syria in concert with the European Investment Bank, whose portfolio exceeds €1.3 billion, the second largest EIB portfolio in the region after Egypt.

In addition, since 2007, the EU has granted €80 million to assist with the influx of Iraqi refugees.

The EU has a draft Association Agreement with Syria, which was signed on the Brussels side in October 2009. The Syrian signature is pending however as Damascus claims part of agreement will have negative impact on its socio-economic situation.

The bloc also currently delivers an aid programme worth €129 million over the next three years, a sum that had been sharply hiked in the last year by 32 percent over the previous programming period.

At the time of the funding announcement, the EU had marked in a document detailing how the aid was to be spent its backing for the thaw between Brussels and Damascus in previous years.

"This illustrates the EU's willingness to step up its support to advance Syria's reform agenda and provide adequate means to facilitate implementation of the Association Agreement upon its entry into force," the document read.

This willingness for further support to Syria now appears to have been closed off.

The €129 million aid sums aimed at supporting the transformation of the country to a "social market economy", with funds for the development of renewable energy, strengthening of civil society organisations, rural development and administrative and economic reforms.

Specifically, the programmes back fostering entrepreneurship, boosting use of solar and wind energy, promoting energy efficiency by industries and households and interconnection of regional electricity and gas markets.

The aid was also to target the poorest rural areas, notably the northeastern region - the most arid area of the country and which hit by drought for the last three years. The region is also home to most of the country's livestock. Combined with soaring global food prices, the droughts have severely affected socio-economic conditions there, according to the EU document.

Funds are supplied to herders, poor and small-scale farmers and their families, aiming to improve the productivity of their land and mitigate drought impacts.

Aid is also focussed on the introduction of efficient water management methods and increasing access to drinkable water.

Other monies go toward efforts to push up the number of low-income families receiving social assistance benefits, update school curricula and teacher training and lower drop-out rates. The EU is the main international donor in the Syrian education sector.

Dovetailing the EU discussion on Friday, the United Nations Human Rights Council is to hold a special session on Syria the same day.

Ten EU member states, along with Japan, Mexico, Senegal, South Korea, the US and Zambia requested the UN meeting.

Members of the UN Security Council have yet to back a statement on the crackdown but are due later on Wednesday to resume discussion on a declaration that would condemn the violence, call for restraint and back a UN investigation.

UK foreign secretary William Hague on Tuesday said that it was "not too late" for al-Assad, and even as he threatened EU sanctions, kept the door open for the Syrian leader should he back down.

"Syria is now at a fork in the road. Its government can still choose to bring about the radical reform which alone can provide peace and stability in Syria and for the long term, and we urge it do so. Or it can choose ever more violent repression, which can only bring short term security for the authorities there. If it does so, we will work with our European partners and others to take measures, including sanctions, that will have an impact on the regime."

EU states generally back a tougher line on Assad but there remain fears that whoever replaces the regime might strengthen Iran's position in the region.

Diplomats are also keen to stress the distinction between the situation in Syria and Libya.

"Of course it's bad, but we are not anywhere near the scale of killings seen in Libya," said another EU official, "We have to keep this in perspective."


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