BRUSSELS, DAMASCUS: Syria’s Bashar Assad has revoked special visas for EU diplomats and officials traveling regularly between Beirut and Damascus, complicating efforts to distribute aid to civil war victims, three senior EU diplomats said.
Since conflict broke out in Syria in 2011, the EU has used the Lebanese capital, the nearest major city, for its diplomatic base while closing most embassies in Damascus in protest over what they describe as Assad's brutal assault on the opposition.
But the special permission to use multiple-entry Syrian visas for access to Damascus was rescinded at the start of January with no explanation from the Syrian
regime, the EU diplomats said, meaning personnel have to apply for time-consuming, single-entry visas every time they wish to travel.
The EU diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity said they believed it was an attempt to try to force European governments and the bloc to reopen embassies in Damascus, as the Syrian army, backed by Russian and Iranian forces, regains control of most of the country.
“It is a serious problem for the EU’s humanitarian assistance,” said one EU diplomat. “This is a measure that hits diplomats and staff of European government embassies and the European Union institutions.”
Reuters was unable immediately to reach Syrian Foreign Ministry officials for comment.
After more than seven years of a devastating war drawing in foreign powers, the European Commission, the EU executive, has channeled almost €800 million ($909.44 million) on food, medicine and shelter for Syrians inside the country.
There was no immediate available estimate for the impact of the multi-visa ban, but a Commission spokesman said that the bloc was “doing everything in our power to take appropriate measures to minimize any impact on the delivery of EU humanitarian assistance inside Syria.”
The EU, which imposed the latest in a series of economic sanctions on Assad’s regime on Monday, says it will not shift its policy until a political transition away from Assad is underway as part of a UN-led peace process.
But EU diplomats also say Assad feels far more secure in his position than several years ago as he consolidates territorial advances and other countries reconsider their positions.
“So far, the EU is united on its policy that we won’t deal with Assad, but he appears to feel his bargaining position is stronger now,” a second diplomat said.
A car bomb exploded on Tuesday in the Syrian regime’s coastal stronghold of Latakia, killing one person and wounding four others, state news agency SANA reported.
“Initial reports indicate that a car bomb exploded and that the driver was killed while four other people were wounded,” SANA said, adding that the explosion occurred in the city’s Al-Hammam Square.
Authorities found a second bomb in the same place and defused it just before it was due to blow up, the agency added.
It published video footage showing a burnt-out car surrounded by firefighters and soldiers.
Latakia is a bastion of the Assad family.
The city, the capital of Latakia province located on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, has largely escaped the violence that has devastated other regions of Syria since the conflict began in 2011.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, Tuesday’s blast was caused by an explosive device hidden inside the car or near it.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP that the driver killed in the blast was not a suicide attacker.
In September 2015, a car bomb had exploded in the same square, killing dozens of people.
The latest explosion comes days after a blast — the first in more than a year — hit the Syrian capital Damascus, which has also been largely insulated from the war.
According to SANA, the bomb blast hit southern Damascus without causing any victims, but the Observatory reported it left a number of people dead and wounded.