By Sorwar Alam, Yusuf Hatip and Ata Ufuk Seker
BRUSSELS / ANKARA
European Council President Donald Tusk said Friday that Russia and Iran are allowing the Assad regime’s brutality across war-torn Syria.
Speaking to reporters following an informal meeting of EU leaders in Brussels, Tusk said: “The Assad regime is brutally attacking innocent men, women and children. Its backers, Russia and Iran, are allowing this to happen.”
“We urge them to stop this violence. The EU calls for an immediate cease-fire, and for providing urgent humanitarian access to, and protection of civilians,” he added.
His statement comes amid ongoing regime attacks on civilians in Damascus’ suburb of Eastern Ghouta, which has been facing intensified bombing in recent days.
More than 400 civilians have been killed and more than 2,100 wounded in Eastern Ghouta over the last six days, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
On Thursday, Russia's Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia said Russia would not support a UN cease-fire proposal without some changes, calling it "unrealistic.”
Home to some 400,000 people, Eastern Ghouta has remained under a crippling regime siege for the last five years, bringing it to the verge of humanitarian catastrophe.
In the past eight months, Assad regime forces have intensified their siege, making it nearly impossible for food or medicine to get into the district and leaving thousands of patients in need of treatment.
Syria has been locked in a devastating conflict since early 2011, when the Assad regime cracked down on demonstrators with unexpected ferocity.
According to UN officials, to date hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict.
Tusk said the leaders had discussed the bloc’s political priorities that they want reflected in its post-2020 multiannual budget.
“We agreed that the EU will spend more on stemming illegal migration, on defense and security, as well as on the Erasmus+ program.
“Despite the usual differences, all leaders are ready to work on modernization of the EU budget and its policies. And many are ready to contribute more to the post-2020 budget," Tusk said.
He added: “But finding an agreement in the European Council already this year seems really difficult.”
Speaking on the European Parliament’s composition after 2019, Tusk said that EU leaders broadly supported the idea that the number of deputies or MEPs would be reduced from 751 to 705.
Aegean, Mediterranean disputes
Tusk also said Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras briefed them about the latest developments in disputes with Turkey in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas.
“On behalf of all the EU leaders, I would like to express our solidarity with Cyprus and Greece, and urgently call on Turkey to terminate these activities,” said Tusk.
He argued that Greek Cyprus has the right to explore and exploit its natural resources in accordance with EU and international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
“These actions contradict Turkey's commitment to good neighborly relations and their normalization with all member states. We are ready to cooperate with Turkey and will assess at our March European Council whether the conditions are there to hold the leaders' meeting with Turkey in Varna [Bulgaria] on 26 March,” he added.
Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) have argued that the Greek Cypriots’ unilateral mining efforts violate Turkish Cypriots’ right to have an equal say in decisions on natural resources around the Mediterranean island.
Agriculture, integration budget cuts
EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said there were disagreements at the meeting among leaders about the consolidation of the heads of the EU Commission and the European Council.
On financial issues, Juncker said he intends to increase the contributions of 14 to 15 member states to close the gap that will emerge after Brexit.
On budget cuts to harmonization and agriculture spending, he added: "This is not a good idea, but this is a crucial decision we have to make. Harmony and agriculture spending account for 70 percent of the EU budget. If we don’t cut these areas, we would need to cut 45 percent in other areas."