x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

EU hits Syria with oil embargo over violent suppression of protest

The move, expected to cost the country millions daily, comes in retaliation for a clampdown that the United Nations estimates has killed 2,200 people since March during demonstrations calling for President Bashar Assad to step down.

BEIRUT // The European Union banned oil imports from Syria on Friday in a move that will cost the embattled regime millions of dollars each day as it uses deadly force to try to crush a 5-month-old uprising. The same day, activists said, at least 13 people were killed in the crackdown.

President Bashar Assad's security forces fired on thousands of anti-government protesters and surrounded mosques in southern and eastern cities to prevent worshippers from streaming into the streets to join the rallies, activists said. The U.N. estimates some 2,200 people have been killed since March as protesters face a barrage of shells and sniper fire.

The regime is in no imminent danger of collapse, but the protesters are determined, leading to concerns violence could escalate.

On Friday, Syrian protesters marched under the slogan "Death Rather Than Humiliation."

The EU oil ban follows other international sanctions and blistering worldwide condemnation. The EU ban covers the purchase, import and transport of oil and other petroleum products from Syria. The EU also has banned European banks from opening credit lines for such sales, and prohibited insurance companies from insuring the cargos.

In addition to the oil ban, four more Syrian individuals and three entities were added to a list of those facing an EU asset freeze and travel ban.

Over the past few months, the EU has imposed travel bans and asset freezes against 35 Syrian government officials and military and police commanders, including Assad himself.

Syria exports some 150,000 barrels of oil per day, generating $7 million to $8 million daily, according to David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The vast majority of that oil goes to the European Union.

Without that revenue, Syria will likely burn through foreign reserves far more quickly. It had $17 billion in reserves at the start of the uprising. Still, some analysts believe Syria is getting financial assistance from Iran, which would cushion the EU blow.

Syria gets about 28 percent of its revenue from the oil trade and sells fuel to France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. The EU has in the past been reluctant to ban Syrian oil and gas imports for fear of the impact on the Syrian public and small businesses.

Explaining the shift, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe explained that EU nations were hoping the oil ban would send an unmistakable message that "the behavior of the Syrian regime has been unacceptable."

"We cannot accept such brutal repression against the aspirations of the people," he told the AP during a visit to Poland.

The EU oil embargo will bring the 27-nation bloc in line with the latest U.S. moves to isolate Assad's regime, including a ban on the import of petroleum or related products.

The embargo takes effect on Saturday, but existing contracts can be fulfilled until Nov. 15.

Some EU nations have been lobbying for other sectors to be added to the sanctions regime, including telecommunications and banking.

Recent weeks have seen a subtle change in tone among some activists, who are calling on Syrians to take up arms and inviting foreign military action like the intervention that helped topple the government of Libya.

"The possibility of conflict in Syria entering a new phase is becoming more likely following almost six months of largely peaceful protests ... and growing external pressure," according to a briefing by Maplecroft, a British-based risk analysis company.

Syrian troops fanned out Friday in cities including Daraa in the south and the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Syria has banned foreign journalists and restricted local coverage, making it difficult to independently confirm events on the ground.

Most of Friday's deaths were in the Damascus suburb of Arbeen and nearby areas, according to the observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, another prominent activist group with a network of sources on the ground.