One might wonder why the fall of the Al-Assad regime delays. Some observers say that “the West is happy for him [Bashar Al-Assad] to stay in power so long as bloodshed ends because it fears the Sunni Muslim opposition is a threat to Israeli and Lebanese security and to the safety of Christians in Syria.”
Syria is composed by a very complex population. While 90.3% of Syrians are of the Arab ethnic group, only 9.7% are Kurds, Armenians and other minorities. Sunni Muslim is the largest religion group with 74% while other Muslim groups – Shiite Alawites and Druze – are only 16%, and various Christian groups are around 10%. The population of Syria is approximately 22.5 millions (read more about Syria here). The president Bashar Al-Assad’s family belongs to the Shiite Alawite. Al-Assad came to power in 2000, as the successor of his father who had died.
Following the Arab Spring which started in Tunisia and spread to several other Arab countries, the anti-government in Syria took the advantage to protest against the Al-Assad regime, calling for democratisation of the country and the stepping down of Al-Assad. The government and its security forces responded with use of excessive force against protesters. The protesters began arming themselves and the clashes between the governmental security forces and the anti-government groups have caused very serious security concerns in Syria. While some countries have been insisting that hard measures must be adopted in order to stop the violence exercised by the Syrian government, some others prefer softer means. The position of the EU was very clear when it announced its possible sanctions that would be an asset freeze and visa ban, or the suspension of some aid by the EU to Syria. On May 9, 2011 the European Council announced its decision to impose an embargo on arms exports to Syria and on equipment which could be used for repression against the population, as well as a visa ban and an assets freeze.[i]
After over a year of crisis and with a fragile ceasefire in place, on April 14 the Security Council of the United Nations finally agreed on a resolution (Resolution 2042 (2012)) to send observers to Syria to monitor the implementation of the peace agreement. Six observers, which will later be increased to 30 in total, arrived to Syria the day after, on April 15. It has taken time to reach an agreement and to agree on the wording of the resolution because Russia and China have been delaying the process by using their veto against earlier draft resolutions in February. In order to get the resolution finally agreed upon it had to have a softer approach, and for example change the word ’demands’ to the softer ‘requests’.
The resolution includes, in addition to a condemning of the violence and widespread breaches of human rights, a six-point peace-proposal (the Annan Plan) made by the Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the League of Arab States of which Syria is a founding member. It states Syria’s commitment to stop the fighting, ensure free movement for journalists, respect the freedom of peaceful demonstration and ensure timely humanitarian aid. It gives the authorisation to send the before mentioned 30 unarmed observers to monitor and report from the ceasefire and Syria’s implementation of the six-point proposal.
When these kinds of situations are reported in the news it seems that it is always the national foreign ministers who make comments about the situation. This is probably because there is no foreign minister of the EU, and the states have their own national interests. Instead, the one who speaks for the EU is Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Catherine Ashton was appointed to this new position introduced by the Lisbon Treaty in December 2010 in accordance with Article 18 of the TEU. Catherine Ashton has already expressed her concerns about the situation in Syria before, and she is welcoming the resolution of the Security Council. In her press release issued on April 17, she expressed support to Kofi Annan and his plan, emphasising that the Union will continue to support the UN and the Arab League and confirming that the Union is willing and ready to assist with the fulfilment of the resolution. She states that the sanctions already applied by the Union, e.g. the suspension of cooperation, loan operations and technical assistance to Syria, will continue as long as necessary. For the EU to be able to impose a sanction against a third country the decision has to be made by Council. According to Article 215 TFEU measures of this kind are adopted by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, on a joint proposal from the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (Catherine Ashton) and the Commission. The Council shall also inform the European Parliament. As required by the Treaty, Ashton (who takes part in the work of the Council as well) informed the MEPs on the current situation in Syria. She stressed that the Union is keen to enforce more sanctions, and revealed that the Union was ready to support the UN monitoring mission by providing helicopters and communication tools.
Moreover, Ashton expressed great personal support for Kofi Annan and emphasised that following his six-point plan and stopping the violence is the only way to get a peaceful, democratic Syria. In her statements Ashton has given the impression of a great personal commitment and strong beliefs, as showed by her resolute words: “This is not a matter of choice. The 6 point plan is not optional.” She harshly condemns the situation and shows that she and the whole Union are willing to assist in any way possible to end the fighting. Her final words reveal her commitment to fundamental rights and democracy: “Mr President and Honourable Members, the future of Syria belongs to the Syrian people. Their lives, their rights, their aspirations must be respected. Assad must now match his words with deeds. His people want freedom and peace and we must do everything possible to realize this goal.”
Finally, Ashton announced assistance for refugees and emphasised for the implementation of the Annan Plan. This plan calls for the release of prisoners, access for aid workers and press, free rein for the anti-government protests, and a “Syrian-led” process to address President Bashar Assad’s political future. In addition to the sanctions proposed against the Syrian government, the EU also pledged assistance of 23 million euros to support the refugees. However, the Annan-plan was heavily criticised because considered out-dated, and it has been on several occasions, violated. MEPs want the resignation of Bashar al-Assad and the appearance of him before the International Criminal Court.
[i] Pauline Dupont et al., The European Union faces the Arab spring of Syria (in French), 2011, available at http://falbert.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/ue-face-au-printemps-arabe-en-syrie.pdf (last access on 24 April 2012).