The EU is considering sweeping sanctions on numerous Belarusian officials, a Syrian airline and a hotel in Minsk as part of measures to pressure authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko to halt the flow of migrants to Europe’s borders.
EU diplomats told the Financial Times that the bloc was working to establish a comprehensive list of people and entities involved in facilitating the movement of people from regions such as Syria, Yemen and Iraq to the EU-Belarus border. Russia, in an effort Brussels has called a “hybrid attack” of Lukashenko’s regime.
The draft list includes Syrian airline Cham Wings for operating flights to Belarus and the Hotel Minsk for housing migrants in the country, diplomats said. The list also includes more than two dozen Belarusian officials and could be extended to Minsk airport.
Thousands of people have traveled from the Middle East via Minsk to the Belarus borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia in recent months in hopes of entering the EU. European officials say the wave is being orchestrated by Minsk in retaliation for the bloc’s support for the Belarusian opposition.
EU foreign ministers will discuss the scope of new sanctions at a meeting in Brussels on Monday, where they are expected to approve a new legal basis for a fifth sanctions package against Minsk. Diplomats said it would take weeks to finalize the final list of people and entities as the EU coordinates measures with the UK, Canada and the US.
Lukashenko warned on Thursday that his country could retaliate against any “unacceptable” sanctions by cutting supplies of gas or goods to Europe. Russia supplies about 40 percent of the EU’s gas, and about a fifth goes through Belarus.
According to FlightRadar data, Cham Wings has operated four flights from Damascus to Minsk since Nov. 7. On Friday, the Turkish Civil Aviation Authority said it had banned citizens of Iraq, Syria and Yemen from buying tickets from Turkish airports to Belarus until further notice.
Brussels is lobbying countries used as transit points on the route to Minsk to help stop the flow of people, leaving thousands stranded in frigid conditions between Belarusian and Polish forces on the bloc’s eastern border.
“When implemented, these measures will have a tangible impact on the current situation,” a senior EU official said ahead of the official announcement. “We are continuing our outreach to countries of origin and transit. Other contacts are planned in the coming days.”
Istanbul has become a major travel hub connecting Europe to the Middle East and Africa as Turkish Airlines has dramatically increased its international presence in recent years.
Turkey’s flag carrier imposed its own ban on passengers from Syria, Iraq and Yemen on Thursday evening, according to a person familiar with the matter. The airline also reduced the number of weekly flights from 14 to 10, the person added.
European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas visited Lebanon’s capital Beirut on Friday as part of a wider tour of the region to persuade countries to curb the number of migrants. He will travel to Iraq next time.
The Kremlin said on Friday that Lukashenko had not consulted Moscow before threatening to cut gas supplies, and that Russia was a reliable supplier. But as a sign of strength, Russia also deployed paratroopers for an exercise near the western border of Belarus.
Poland’s defense minister said on Friday that Polish armed forces will receive support from British military engineers in securing the fence at the border with Belarus. He did not specify how many British personnel were involved.
Ankara, which has a close but complex relationship with Moscow, had reacted angrily in recent days to claims by Poland that Turkey was acting in a “synchronized” manner with Russia and Belarus to fuel the crisis.
The country’s foreign ministry said it rejected attempts to “paint it as part of the problem.”
Turkey is home to nearly 4 million refugees, the vast majority of whom are Syrian, but also a significant number of Afghans.