Offering another sign of the international community’s tightening noose on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the European Union on Friday announced an embargo on all imports of Syrian oil.
The move will not be music to the ears of Mr. Assad, whose coffers rely on the proceeds from about 150,000 barrels of exported oil a day, most of which goes to Europe.
The EU imposed its oil import ban as Western diplomats suggested that Assad’s continuing repression of pro-democracy forces in Syria was resurrecting efforts to adopt a United Nations resolution of international sanctions against Syria. French officials said Friday that another try at approving a Syria resolution would be launched in the coming days.
Earlier hopes of international action against Syria were dashed when China and Russia, both veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, balked at a proposed sanctions resolution. Instead, the council in early August adopted a weaker “presidential statement” that condemned the Syrian state’s violence against its own people but included no punitive measures.
One reason for renewed optimism over prospects for a UN resolution was the stark reality that Assad has neither curtailed the state-sponsored violence nor proceeded with promised political reforms.
In an interview with the BBC Friday, British Prime Minister David Cameron noted that Arab leaders who had earlier shown no interest in condemning Assad were now realizing that the intransigent Syrian leader was in growing peril.
Mr. Cameron said a number of Arab leaders he spoke with at an international conference on Libya in Paris Thursday “are toughening their stance because they realize that what he is doing is appalling. They realize that he had a chance to demonstrate he was in favor of reform,” he added, “and he has completely failed to do that.”
Also last week, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who had for weeks attempted to engage Assad and encouraged him to proceed with political reforms, said he had “lost confidence” in the Syrian leader and that any efforts now would be “too little too late.”
The view of Arab leaders is all the more important because Syria’s neighbor Lebanon – which has long been dominated by Damascus – has just taken on the one-month presidency of the UN Security Council. In that role it will determine the council’s agenda during September.
Another reason that some diplomats foresee improved prospects for a UN resolution on Syria is a perceived change in stance from Russia. After long sticking by the regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Russia this week reversed course and joined other world powers like the US in recognizing the Transitional National Council as Libya’s legitimate governing entity.
Russia could see Syria’s neighbors turning against the Assad regime – even Iranian officials have come out critical of their client Assad – and reluctant to again appear to be the odd man out, could switch to either approving or at least abstaining from vetoing a UN resolution, some European diplomats say.
On Thursday Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who also attended the Paris conference on Libya, said additional measures like the embargo on Syrian oil imports the EU adopted Friday were critical steps in order to “deny the regime revenues that fund its campaign of violence.”
But international oil experts said the EU oil embargo might not ever bite, if Syria is able to quickly find new markets for its oil – particularly in Asia. Syria has enough cash reserves to hold it over while it secures new oil customers, even if it takes several weeks, they said.
The EU’s action Friday still does not go as far as recent US action, which included a ban on US investment in Syria. The EU oil embargo does not include a ban on European firms working with Syrian companies.
As a result, international oil analysts reported Friday that European oil traders and petroleum multinationals were still delivering refined products to Syria and sending tankers to pick up unrefined petroleum.
The difference as of Friday is that they will supposedly be delivering the Syrian oil to other than European ports.