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Syrian refugees at a newly-opened camp in the Hatay province of Turkey on Monday. AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici

"We will forget that Europe is on the map": Syria on sanctions

News of the EU’s sanctions hasn’t gone down too well with the Syrian foreign minister…

SYRIA’S FOREIGN minister said today the Damascus government would soon present “an unprecedented example of democracy” in the troubled Middle East, an extraordinary promise in a country facing an uprising against an authoritarian system in place for decades.

Speaking during a televised news conference, Foreign Minister Walid Moallem’s comments were the latest attempt by the regime to blunt three months of widespread street protests against President Bashar Assad’s autocratic rule, a movement that has persisted despite a bloody crackdown reportedly killing hundreds.

Moallem lashed out at the government’s critics, particularly Europe, which imposed sanctions on Assad and members of the leadership over its deadly crackdown on protesters.

He said European Union sanctions targeted the livelihood of Syrian people and “that amounts to (an act) of war.”

“We will forget that Europe is on the map and we will look east, south and toward every hand that is extended to us,” Moallem said. “The world is not just made up of Europe.”

He criticised France, Syria’s former colonial ruler, whose President Nicolas Sarkozy has been seen as generally supportive of Assad in recent years, visiting Syria twice in 2008 and 2009. ”France must stop practising its colonialist policies as it is doing under the slogan of human rights,” Moallem said.

He said Syria would freeze its membership in the EuroMed partnership, a loose program of cooperation between the European Union and the nations on its southern rim, including Syria, that was set up in the mid-1990s.

Call for political engagement

The statements by the longtime trusted Assad aide went beyond the vague promises of reform the president made in a speech on Monday, and amounted to a rare official admission that Syria has ignored basic democratic principles. Moallem called for regime opponents to enter into political talks, and urged Syrian exiles to return, pledging that “even the harshest opponent” of the regime will not be arrested.

The news conference appeared designed to present a picture of regime confidence at a time when Assad is coming under increased attack abroad and at home, where the protesters call for his ouster.

The foreign minister said the international community is mired in the “scandals” of its military intervention in Libya and wouldn’t repeat the experience in Syria, adding that Arab countries “without exception” supported Damascus. On Monday, the Arab League issued a statement of support for Syria and opposition to foreign intervention there.

The opposition estimates more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 detained as Damascus unleashed military and other security forces to crush the protest movement, which sprang to life in March inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

The US also has imposed sanctions, but the European move was a personal blow to Assad, who studied in Britain and made a high priority of efforts to bring Syria back into the global mainstream.

Moallem also denied that Syrian allies Iran and Hezbollah are helping the regime put down unrest. The U.S. has accused Iran of sending reinforcements and equipment to Syria.

Of Turkey, whose leaders have called the Syrian crackdown “savagery,” Moallem said Damascus wants to preserve its relations with Ankara. “I hope that they will reconsider their position,” he said.

The unrest has sent thousands of refugees fleeing into neighboring Turkey. The UN refugee agency said Tuesday that 500 to 1,000 people a day have been crossing from northern Syria into Turkey since 7 June, and more than 10,000 were being sheltered by Turkish authorities in four border camps.

- AP

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