Sanctions bite in Syria as oil giant Shell pulls out – By Douglas Hamilton
(Reuters) – Royal Dutch Shell said on Friday it would cease operations in Syria to heed new European Union sanctions against Damascus, deepening the international isolation of President Bashar al-Assad imposed over his violent crackdown on popular unrest.
In the latest bloodshed, Syrian army defectors killed eight Air Force intelligence personnel in an attack on their base in the north of the country, according to an opposition group.
The incident suggested that armed deserters are turning increasingly from defending civilian protesters against violent repression by Assad’s security forces to an offensive of ambushes and roadside bombs, raising the specter of civil war.
Western and Arab countries have been intensifying punitive sanctions to press Assad to carry out pledges to halt bloodshed by withdrawing forces from restive cities, starts transition talks with the opposition and admit Arab League observers.
Royal Dutch Shell said it would shutting down in Syria to heed a batch of EU sanctions slapped on Syria’s economically vital oil and financial sectors the day before.
A Shell spokesman said: « Our main priority is the safety of our employees … We hope the situation improves quickly for all Syrians. »
The EU on Friday extended sanctions to three Syrian oil concerns, including the state-owned General Petroleum Corporation (GPC) and Syria Trading Oil (Sytrol), to crank up the financial pressure on the Assad government.
The three oil concerns were among 11 entities and 12 Syrian leadership figures added to an EU blacklist now aimed in part at bringing the Syrian ventures of oil giants to a halt. Royal Dutch Shell was the first to bow out.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called for international action to protect Syria’s civilian population from « continual ruthless repression that, if not stopped now, can drive the country into a full-fledged civil war ».
More than 4,000 people have been killed, including 307 children, in the military crackdown on unrest since March and more than 14,000 people are believed to be held in detention, she told an emergency session of the U.N. Human Rights Council.
« In light of the manifest failure of the Syrian authorities to protect their citizens, the international community needs to take urgent and effective measures to protect the Syrian people, » Pillay said in Geneva. « All acts of murder, torture and other forms of violence must be immediately stopped. »
She voiced disquiet at reports of increased armed attacks by the opposition forces, including the so-called Free Syrian Army, against the Syrian military and security apparatus.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other activists said at least 20 civilians were killed by Syrian security forces across the country on Thursday, mainly in the provinces of Hama and Homs – epicenter of the anti-Assad revolt.
The Observatory said the attack on Air Force intelligence took place in Idlib province, between the towns of Jisr al-Shughour and the Mediterranean port of Latakia.
« A clash ensued for three hours which led to the death of at least eight members of the Air Force Intelligence, » it said.
The Syrian state news agency SANA said security forces « on Thursday killed 5 armed men and arrested 35 others during a clash with armed terrorist members in the Hama countryside ».
It said dozens of Kalashnikov assault rifles, shotguns, grenades and explosives were seized.
The anti-Assad Syrian Free Army has formed a military council of nine defecting officers. They issued a declaration pledging to « bring down the regime and protect citizens from the repression … and prevent chaos as soon as the regime falls ».
The main civilian opposition group, the Syrian National Council, held a first meeting with Free Army leaders in Istanbul this week. A Council spokeswoman said the Council only supports a peaceful uprising and the Free Army is not its armed wing.
Syrian armed forces defectors began organizing three months ago and now number around 10,000, say opposition sources.
They cite increased operations in the last ten days by defectors and insurgents in the central regions Hama and Homs, Idlib on the border with Turkey, and the southern province of Deraa where armored convoys have been attacked.
U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden, on a visit to Ankara, praised Turkey for being « a real leader » on the Syrian crisis.
« We also welcome the government’s giving space in Turkey to the political opposition, » he told Hurriyet newspaper. « The United States’ position on Syria is clear. The Syrian regime must end its brutality against its own people and President Assad must step down so a peaceful transition that respects the will of the people can take place, » Biden said.
SANA said Syria had suspended a free trade zone pact with Turkey in retaliation for Ankara’s actions. Turkey, formerly a staunch ally of Assad, has also suspended financial credit dealings with Syria and frozen Syrian government assets, joining the Arab and Western campaign to isolate Assad.
In Paris, French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said on Friday he had taken steps to protect members of Syria’s National Council in France after recent threats.
« Given the troubles in Syria, we have seen a certain number of threats on Syrian opponents, » he told a press conference. « Measures to protect them have been taken. »
After a meeting with SNC chairman Burhan Ghalioun earlier this month, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Paris considered the group to be the legitimate partner with which it wanted to work.
The expanded EU sanctions list encompasses media companies and firms the EU says supply sensitive equipment to a research centre that supports Assad’s suppression of dissent. The United States and the Arab League have also imposed an array of economic sanctions and banned travel by some Syrian VIPs.
But Russia has opposed further sanctions and defended its right to sell arms to Syria. The Interfax news agency on Thursday reported the delivery of Russian anti-ship cruise missiles to Syria, a few days after a United Nations commission of inquiry called for an arms embargo on Damascus.
Russia traditionally uses what influence it still has in the Middle East as a lever in diplomatic maneuvering with Europe and the United States. Syria is also one of its major arms clients.
Russia and China, which both have oil concessions in Syria, teamed up in October to veto a Western-backed Security Council resolution condemning Assad’s government for the bloodshed.