EU Considers Lifting Syrian Oil, Arms Embargoes

An oil refinery in Homs, Syria, before the outbreak of hostilities. Photo: High Contrast for Wikimedia Commons

An oil refinery in Homs, Syria, before the outbreak of hostilities. Photo: High Contrast for Wikimedia Commons

On Monday, April 22, European Ministers of Foreign Affairs met in Luxembourg to revise their decisions pertaining to the embargo on Syrian petroleum products. The goal of these revisions is to aid the civilian population, which has been greatly impacted by civil war in a country wrought with violence.

According to a text released from the meeting, one of the primary goals is to address humanitarian issues and work towards alleviating the crisis. The introduction of varied European sanctions largely concerned the Eastern and Northern parts of the country, areas that continue to be controlled by rebel groups and contain the majority of Syrian petroleum plants.

According to the twenty-seven member states of the European Union, their job now is to change the previous sanction agreements, and contribute to the restoration of basic services and economic activity. Their aim is also to favor the reconstruction of parts of the country that have been severely damaged. They further plan to begin allowing the importation into the EU of petroleum produced in the affected zones. Since the beginning of the violence in Syria, the production of petroleum has decreased to a third of pre-conflict levels, falling during the month of March to only 130,000 barrels per day.

The European Union also wants to lift restrictions on the sale of petroleum equipment and to allow new investments, on the condition that these measures do not benefit the regime of Bashar al-Assad. European leaders estimate that civilian populations have borne the brunt of the sanctions, while the regime, the primary target of such measures, has been affected to a lesser degree. According to a variety of specialist sources, the regime has been able to avoid much of the embargo with help from Greek and Italian naval agents.

The reduction of the embargo will take time, EU leaders have said. It will involve a flurry of legislation from member states, as each decision will have to be reached on a case-by-case basis in each state. The process will also include consultation with the opposition, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

That some of the petroleum is in the hands of rebel groups that are rivals of the EU has already been recognized as a potential stumbling block. What is still to be determined is how to assure the payment for importations and how to maintain control over the trade. Plans remain unclear at this early stage.

The leaders of the rebellion might get even more than they hoped for. London and Paris are applying pressure to obtain a lift of the arms embargo and have written to Catherine Ashton, a Briton and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for the EU, to emphasize their goal. French and British officials argue that it is becoming increasingly difficult to defend the option of maintaining a general continuation of sanctions without providing an exception for weapons.

Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister, and William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, both indicated that the delivery of arms was “a condition” upon which the entire EU would need to reach a unanimous agreement. Most countries are worried about the possibility of selling arms to radical groups that have close ties to al-Qaeda.

While steps are being taken towards lifting these bans, it is still not quite enough for some Syrian opposition leaders. Moaz al-Khatib, the ex-leader of the Syrian National Opposition Coalition, deplores the “inaction” of the international community, and is equally incensed at the fact that his people cannot defend themselves. Paris and London side with him, stating that the longer it takes moderates to be armed, the more the violence will continue to spread. The hope is that through quick and decisive legislative action, the EU will be able to alleviate some of the pressure on civilian populations in Syria and work to end the fighting.

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