23rd Sep 2023

Syrian leader to face EU sanctions as death toll climbs

  • War-scarred houses in Beirut. The Syrian regime has threatened to provoke regional instability (Photo: Bertil Videt)

EU countries have agreed to impose a visa ban and asset freeze on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, accused by dissidents of killing more than 1,000 people in recent weeks.

All 27 EU ambassadors in the Political and Security Committee (PSC) - a high-level EU forum for dealing with international crises - on Tuesday (17 May) evening endorsed a list of 10 more names, including the president himself, to be added to a previous sanctions register of 13 regime members.

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The PSC also agreed a statement to be rubber-stamped by EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday threatening future financial sanctions.

"The EU is determined to take further measures without delay should the Syrian leadership choose not to swiftly change its current path," the draft communique says. The text mentions a block on new European Investment Bank lending to Syria, currently worth €1.3 billion. But the bank is legally obliged to honour existing contracts.

The measures have been tabled as an "a-point" in the Foreign Affairs Council, an agenda item normally agreed automatically at the start of the meeting.

But in an unusual move, the Syria a-point is to be held back until ministers have had a chance to speak out, creating the possibility of a last-minute u-turn.

"It leaves things open for a member state to row back on the PSC agreement," an EU diplomat said. The contact added that the same countries which earlier opposed sanctions on the president - Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Spain - continued to voice doubts on Tuesday.

"Usually when PSC ambassadors say 'Yes' that means 'Yes.' It happens very rarely that countries say they can't agree to an a-point," another EU diplomatic source noted.

Speaking from Damascus on Wednesday morning, Haytham al-Maleh, an 80-year old Syrian lawyer and human rights activist, told this website that the death toll is far higher than the 700-or-so figure quoted in most reports.

Al-Maleh is in hiding and has been unable to go home for the past four weeks for fear of being arrested.

"Al-Assad has already killed more than 1,000 people - this is what all my contacts tell me. I am collecting information by phone from all over the country," he said.

When informed about the latest EU decision, he added: "It helps us. We need more pressure from the UN, from the EU on the regime ... this is the only way, he [al-Assad] has to go."

For his part, al-Assad's cousin and regime financier Rami Makhlouf in a New York Times interview last week threatened regional "chaos" if al-Assad is pushed too far.

"What I'm saying is don't let us suffer, don't put a lot of pressure on the president, don't push Syria to do anything it is not happy to do ... We will sit here. We call it a fight until the end," he said, in words echoing the rhetoric of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya.

Syria has the capacity to cause instability in neigbouring Lebanon and to draw Iran and Israel into a wider conflict, taking the region back into the bloody days of the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s.

US and French diplomats have in off-the-record briefings in Brussels explained that Libya-type intervention in Syria is not an option due to strategic considerations.

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