29th Mar 2023

EU ministers to 'deplore' Syria killings, threaten sanctions

  • 19 more dead: the EU 'stands ready to review its policies towards Syria as appropriate' (Photo: j naylor)

EU foreign ministers will next week step up pressure for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to stop killing protesters and to make good on promises of reform.

The ministers plan to say following their meeting in Luxembourg on Tuesday (12 April) that the EU "deplores the many deaths resulting from ongoing violence" and that it "stands ready to review its policies towards Syria as appropriate," according to draft conclusions seen by EUobserver.

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The EU statement asks for "urgent implementation" of al-Assad's reform proposals and calls his bluff on "claims" that the protests are an outside plot, adding: "The Council notes the claim pointing to the involvement of foreign elements instigating violence, which needs to be verified."

Reports indicate al-Assad security forces gunned down more than 20 unarmed civilians in the southern city of Daraa on Friday, on top of 122 killings in March.

The EU vocabulary puts Syria on a par with Yemen, up to now seen as the most dangerous and unstable regime in the region.

The Luxembourg conclusions also "deeply deplore the further loss of life" in Yemen, where 63 people were recently killed. But they are softer on Western ally Bahrain, with 23 casualties, where the EU "encourages the authorities to further investigate all recent events which have resulted in loss of life."

The Hungarian EU presidency earlier this week said travel bans, asset freezes and suspension of talks on an EU-Syria Association Agreement are "an option."

The Syria conclusions - which were agreed by EU diplomats before the latest violence on Friday - could still be changed. They could also be influenced by what al-Assad tells Bulgaria's foreign minister Nikolay Mladenov at a face-to-face meeting in Damascus on Sunday.

"He [Mladenov] will convey the EU's message on the need for reforms," a Bulgarian diplomat said. The contact noted that Bulgaria is taking the initiative "because we have a tradition of close bilateral relations with all the countries in the Arab world, because we are trading with them, because many Arabs come to Bulgaria for their education."

On Libya, ministers on Tuesday also aim to adopt "further restrictive measures, including in the oil and gas sector, against the regime" and to encourage anti-Gaddafi defections. "Those working within the regime face a choice: to continue to associate themselves with the brutal repression … or work to support an orderly and Libyan-led transition to democracy," the draft statement says.

On the flow of refugees, it notes that "member states stand ready to demonstrate their concrete solidarity to member states most directly concerned by migratory movements and provide the necessary support as the situation evolves."

An EU diplomat said the Libya language is even more prone to change than the Syria line.

The migration issue has become an irritant between France and Italy, with France accused of closing its borders and sending people back to Italy. The issue has also climbed the political agenda after more than 200 people drowned trying to reach Italy earlier this week.

Ashton's handling of Libya is under the spotlight because her office in recent days sent out mixed messages on whether or not the EU is open to talks with Gaddafi loyalists.

"If she had taken a more clear line on this, maybe the Greeks wouldn't have invited the deputy FM to Athens, which was embarrassing," an EU diplomat noted.

Libyan deputy foreign minister Abdelati Obeidi went to Athens on 3 April, but little came of the 'peace talks.'

The Luxembourg conclusions say nothing about Belarus, despite the fact EU countries are currently looking into where President Aleksander Lukashenko hides his personal fortune with a view to giving future asset freezes more bite.

Ashton has promised Lukashenko-active EU members, such as Poland, Slovakia and the UK, to use the words "political prisoners" in reference to nine jailed protesters during her post-ministerial press conference, however.

Ashton had previously referred to the group as "detainees."


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