Syria was the major issue discussed at the Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Brussels on 18 February, which I attended. The focus was very much on the most appropriate steps for the EU to take in support of ongoing efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Against the background of escalating fighting between the Syrian army and opposition groups, and with no military resolution in sight, it is increasingly evident that a negotiated solution is the only realistic option to bring about an end to the appalling violence (which has so far cost close to 70,000 lives) and to start a genuine process of political transition. The Council made clear, in its Conclusions, that the EU welcomes and supports all efforts to bring about a peaceful solution to the violence in Syria.
These objectives are central to the mission of the UN/Arab League Joint Special Representative, Lakhdar Brahimi. The Council reiterated its full support for Mr. Brahimi’s efforts. We also welcomed the offer made to the Syrian authorities by the President of the National Syrian Coalition, Dr Al Khatib, to start a political dialogue leading to a peaceful transition. The sanctions which the EU is applying at present are an essential means of maintaining strong pressure on the Syrian authorities so as to persuade them to stop their campaign of repression and brutality against the Syrian people. I welcome the fact that the Council was able to agree on renewing the full range of existing sanctions for a further period of three months.
Accountability is very important in the context of the many war crimes and human rights violations that have been committed by all sides during the conflict. Ireland has lent active support within the EU to calls for the situation in Syria to be referred by the UN Security Council to the International Criminal Court. The Council has called on the Security Council to urgently address the situation in Syria in all its aspects, including the question of a possible referral to the ICC.
The role of the UN is also key in coordinating international relief efforts to address the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation. Ireland was represented at the high-level pledging conference on Syria which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon chaired in Kuwait on 30 January and at which in excess of US$1.5 billion was raised to support ongoing international relief efforts. My colleague, the Minister of State for Trade and Development, Mr Joe Costello T.D., announced additional emergency assistance of €4.7 million at the conference, bringing total Irish aid to Syria in the past year to €7.1 million. Total EU assistance to date, both from the Commission and Member States, amounts to some €580 million.
The Council, at its meeting on 18 February, explicitly reaffirmed the leading role of the UN in providing assistance to Syria as well as to those neighbouring countries who are so generously hosting the estimated 900,000 refugees from this conflict. The Council Conclusions also committed the EU to take steps towards providing humanitarian assistance to all areas in the country, including those currently not reached by humanitarian aid. The conflict in Syria will remain a major priority for Ireland at all levels of our international engagement. We will use the influence available to us in our current EU Presidency role to support European and UN efforts and initiatives towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict.