EU tightens sanctions following Syrian massacre

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The EU’s High representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, announced toughened sanctions against Syria yesterday (1 August) in the wake of Sunday’s reported massacre in Hama and the regime's ongoing crackdown against protesters.

Syrian security forces yesterday renewed tank attacks on the city of Hama reportedly killing four after Sunday’s crackdown – described by activists as one of the bloodiest since the uprising against Assad began – left up to 130 dead in the city.

Western journalists are banned from Syria and rely on activists for testimony.

Ashton said that the EU had decided to impose further restrictive measures, in the form of an assets freeze and travel ban on five Syrian individuals associated with the violent repression.

A spokesman said that the list would be formally published tomorrow; it is almost certain to include President Bashar al-Assad, and influential henchmen such as his brother Maher – the chief of the Republican Guard – and Rami Makhlouf, his wealthy cousin.

In a statement Ashton urged the Syrian Government: “To address the EU's repeated calls for freedom of expression and freedom of  assembly, to release all political prisoners without further delay and institute a genuine and inclusive national dialogue.”

She welcomed the UN Security Council’s decision to hold an emergency session later today to address the issue, saying: “It is time for the Security Council to take a clear stand on the need to end the violence.”

Syrian claims ‘nonsense’ according to US envoy

The Syrian government claimed troops were sent to Hama on Sunday to remove barricades erected by the protesters. But an official at the US embassy in Damascus dismissed the claims as “nonsense”, saying the government had launched “full-on warfare” against its own people.

US President Barack Obama described the reports from Hama as “horrifying”, whilst ministers from France and the UK separately condemned the violence, and Germany formally requested the United Nations’ emergency discussions in New York today.

The Syrian military pulled out of Hama a month ago, but remained on the outskirts, tightly controlling supplies to the city.

Town of al-Assad’s father’s crackdown on dissent

Hama is a symbolic centre of dissidence, since tens of thousands were killed there in 1982 when an uprising by the Sunni opposition Muslim Brotherhood was violently suppressed by former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father.

Although the 800,000-inhabitant city was slow to join in this year’s protests, it has become one of the main focuses of rebellion, witnessing some of the country’s biggest demonstrations and worst violence.

Tanks and troops re-entered Hama at dawn on Sunday, attacking civilians with shells and machine-gun fire, according to witnesses.

Hospitals complained of being overwhelmed by the numbers of dead and wounded, and activists and residents claimed that more than 100 people had been killed by the time the tanks left again at twilight.

The Syrian government claimed five soldiers, including a colonel, were killed in yesterday’s clashes throughout the whole country.

Positions

"I condemn the military invasion of Hama and of other cities in the strongest possible terms. The use of heavy weaponry and the indifferent killing of innocent civilians cannot be justified under any circumstances," said the President of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek.

He added: "The Syrian regime [...] will be held accountable for their deeds. The international community cannot tolerate another Hama like in 1982. The massacre must stop now and the regime has to start the transition of power,” said Buzek.

“On 18 July, EU Foreign Ministers declared that until the unacceptable violence against civilians stops and decisive progress is achieved towards fulfilling the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people for a democratic transition, the EU will pursue its current  policy, including sanctions against those responsible for or associated with the violent repression,” said Catherine Ashton, EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy.

She went on: “Unfortunately, since then mass arrests, violence and the killing of civilians have continued and even escalated [...] This  shows  that  the Syrian leadership is unwilling to implement the reforms it has promised in response to the legitimate requests of the Syrian people."

“[...] Today, the EU has decided to impose further restrictive measures, in the form of an assets freeze and travel ban on five Syrian individuals involved in or associated with the violent repression. [...] The EU continues to monitor the situation in Syria closely. It will extend restrictive measures, should the Syrian leadership persist in its current path. I welcome the fact that the UN Security Council will hold an emergency session later today to address the serious escalation. It is time for the Security Council to take a clear stand on the need to end the violence,” said Ashton.

The United Nations Security Council has indeed held a closed-door meeting yesterday to consider revived moves by Western nations for approval of a draft resolution that would condemn the Syrian regime for its bloody crackdown on protesters.

Ahead of the Security Council meeting, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Council members who had earlier opposed a resolution on Syria to reconsider, saying in a written statement that the international community should come together behind the eople of Syria.

Clinton also demanded that the Syrian regime "stop the slaughter now," RFE/RL reported.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said pressure must not only be from Western nations, but must also come from Arab countries and from Turkey.

In Berlin, the German Foreign Ministry condemned what it called a war by the Syrian government against its own people.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu also "strongly condemned" the violence, which coincides with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan:

"We are deeply appalled and dismayed by the operations in Hama and other Syrian cities," Davuto?lu said. "The method and timing of these operations is very wrong."

Russia, China, South Africa, India, and Brazil -- who are all angry about the NATO bombing campaign in Libya -- have previously refused to support even a statement condemning the Syrian regime.

In reaction to the latest violence, however, Russia's Foreign Ministry said on yesterday that the use of force against Syrian civilians was "unacceptable and must cease."

Background

Protests in Syria began in mid-March, inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Although President Assad Bashar has offered concessions and reforms, the government has also carried out periodic crackdowns and activists say more than 1,500 civilians and 350 security personnel have been killed since the outset of the troubles.

More than 12,600 people have also been arrested and 3,000 are reported missing.

The government repression has served to increase opposition demands, and many are now calling for the president to step down.

The Syrian government has accused foreign-backed extremists and armed criminal gangs of stirring up trouble.

In a statement on the state news agency Sana on Sunday, the government said armed groups had "set police stations on fire, vandalised public and private properties, set roadblocks and barricades and burned tyres at the entrance of Hama".

The statement claimed that Syrian army units were removing the barricades and roadblocks set by the armed groups at the entrance of Hama.

Most foreign journalists are banned from the country, making it difficult to verify reports.

Tension appears to be increasing in several Syrian cities and towns with military and security operations across the country.

With the start of Ramadan there are widespread fears that the violence and suppression will escalate, since sources close to the regime say there will be a strong security crackdown and no tolerance towards the protesters.

Timeline

  • 2 August: full list of individuals to be subjected to rigorous sanctions will be published by EU

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