EU foreign ministers may tone down support for Syria strike

There are worries by some EU states about legality of air strikes without UN approval

The EU's unequivocal support for Saturday's missile strikes on Syria is likely to be somewhat muted on Monday when foreign ministers meet in Luxembourg, as concerns emerge about the strength of a statement issued on Saturday.

Ireland is expected to be among a number of states likely to express concerns, according to diplomatic sources.

Among other member states there are worries about the legality of the strike without UN approval, and about the categorical attribution of responsibility to Syria ahead of reports from Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) teams on the ground.

US president Donald Trump’s statement that the US is ready to “strike again” should Syria resume chemical attacks will also raise questions about whether the union is giving the three countries a blank cheque for similar future actions.

Irish sources were adamant that there was no division whatsoever about the need to deter chemical attacks and that Bashir al-Assad’s regime was involved in wholesale slaughter of its own people. They said that the evidence showed that it was “overwhelmingly likely” that the Syrians carried out the attacks in Douma. Ireland would not be seeking to condemn the US, UK and French attacks, they said.

On Saturday morning, on behalf of the EU28, high representative for foreign policy Federica Mogherini had reiterated the union's condemnation of "the repeated use of chemical weapons" by the Syrian regime, and said that the union "is supportive of all efforts aimed at the prevention of the use of chemical weapons".

Ministers will on Monday approve conclusions on Syria which emphasise the abhorrence and illegality of chemical weapons use

“In this context,” the statement adds, “the EU was informed about targeted US, French and UK air strikes on chemical weapons facilities in Syria, these specific measures having been taken with the sole objective to prevent further use of chemical weapons and chemical substances as weapons by the Syrian regime to kill its own people”.

Human tragedy

President of the European Council Donald Tusk tweeted that the strikes "make it clear that [the] Syrian regime together with Russia [and] Iran cannot continue this human tragedy, at least not without cost. The EU will stand with our allies on the side of justice."

The EU imposed additional sanctions on high-level officials and scientists for their role in developing and using chemical weapons in July 2017 last month, Ms Mogherini said, warning that the union “is always ready to consider imposing further measures as appropriate”.

Although unwilling to participate in the attacks, German chancellor Angela Merkel said on Saturday the military intervention was "necessary and appropriate to ensure the effectiveness of the international ban of chemical weapons use and to warn the Syrian regime of further violations".

She also accused Russia of repeatedly blocking an independent investigation in the UN.

Ministers will on Monday approve conclusions on Syria which emphasise the abhorrence and illegality of chemical weapons use, the need for renewed commitment for a political settlement through the “Geneva process”, that there can be no “military solution”, demand humanitarian access and access for OPCW inspectors, and make clear that the union is willing to make a commitment to assisting reconstruction as long as it is the context of a political settlement.

Iran nuclear deal

Monday’s foreign ministers’ agenda also includes related discussions on Iran and Russia.

The EU is particularly concerned about the expected repudiation by the Trump administration on May 12th of the Iran nuclear deal and its likely destabilising impact on the region. The EU would remain committed to its implementation but there are concerns Iran might also repudiate the accord.

Several member states are pushing for new measures against Iran over its unrelated ballistic missile programme and its involvement in regional conflicts like Yemen and Syria.

Additional sanctions are being mooted by the EU in part at least as a way of showing the US the union’s seriousness about Iran and to suggest that the scrapping of the nuclear deal is not the best or only way to handle them. Currently these are being opposed by Sweden, Italy and Austria.

The ministers' conclusions will point to the repeated insistence from International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors that the Iranian are adhering to their obligations not to enrich uranium.

The European Parliament will hold a plenary debate on the Syria strikes on Monday in Strasbourg.

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth is former Europe editor of The Irish Times

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