EU foreign ministers withhold outright support for Syria attack

Luxembourg meeting condemns ‘repeated use’ of chemical weapons by Syrian regime

EU foreign ministers on Monday expressed "understanding" rather than outright support for the weekend attack on Syria by the US, UK and France, in a position adopted partly at Ireland's behest.

Ministers, however, “strongly condemned the continued and repeated use of chemical weapons by the regime in Syria”.

Meeting in Luxembourg, the ministers said they were “supportive of all efforts aimed at the prevention of the use of chemical weapons” and “understand that the targeted US, French and UK air strikes on chemical weapons facilities in Syria were 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”.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said after the meeting that Ireland "was vocal this morning in terms of looking for modest changes to the wording and there were some changes. I said last week and I say again this week that Ireland urges caution in relation to military intervention in a country that has been devastated by military intervention".

Responding to concerns about the lack of a UN mandate for the action, he said "we also understand that the UN Security Council is paralysed in terms of responding appropriately to the use of chemical weapons in Douma, in this case, but also a year ago. There's been 12 motions on Syria at the UN  that have been vetoed by Russia, and so we understand why military action took place".

He said the focus of ministers was also on the need for a resumprion of political talks, and the planned EU/UN conference on Syria next week in Brussels  had assumed new significance. Originally a humanitarian pledging conference, it would now take on a more important political role.

Ireland would attend, he said, and was planning to announce a “substantial” financial contribution.

There had been very strong support for the UK, France and the US at the foreign ministers’ meeting and a desire to reflect a united and robust response to Syria, Mr Coveney said.

It is understood that Greece and Sweden were among those that also had reservations about the lack of a UN mandate for the weekend strikes, as well as concerns about attribution of responsibility in advance of inspections to be carried out by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The Netherlands supported the EU "understanding" language, but at Nato it had rejected a proposal to give explicit support to the attack.

Following a debate on Iran, Mr Coveney said ministers would try to take a decision on adding to EU sanctions against that country ahead of May 12th, when the US is expected to repudiate the landmark nuclear enrichment prohibition deal with Tehran.

Ministers discussed the prospects for the Iran nuclear deal should the US pull out and their “separate” concerns about Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts from Syria to Yeman, and its missile programme.

Sanctioning Tehran over the latter – seen as a separate issue – is regarded as a way of demonstrating to the US that the EU has not gone soft on Iran and that concerns are shared. It would be “sensible to have that conversation in the context of trying to persuade Washington to stick with the nuclear deal because it may help in that discussion,” Mr Coveney said.

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth is former Europe editor of The Irish Times