On road to Syria, fear nearly turned Toom back


When about to enter into Syria from Lebanon this past weekend, MEP Yana Toom (Centre Party, ALDE) said she was actually about to turn around for the sake of security. EU imposed sanctions on Syria in 2011, extended this May till July 2017. Interview for the Postimees.

-Hello, it’s about – surprise, surprise! – your Syria visit. No planes to Damascus from Europe, right?


-How did you end up there, then?

Goodness gracious! I’m so angry. I just read like I had accepted a bribe. That did anger me.

-Yeah, I know about that. (About the ERR news titled «Visit by Yana Toom to Assad partially paid by Syrian government», Ms Toom posted on Facebook: «Well, my friends –to the fool who writes such headlines and sincerely believes that a night in a hotel three kilometres from ISIS positions is a bribe, I will pay [that reporter’s] one week vacation in Damascus. On one condition – not Beirut, but Damascus. Looking forward to.»)

But… I flew to Beirut, and from there went to the border by car. At the border, we were received by Syrians, we drove on to Damascus. From the border, It’s about a half hour drive.

-From where did you fly to Beirut?

From Frankfurt.

-Did your delegation get a convoy from Beirut already?

No convoy in Beirut. It was just a rental car that met us there, that’s all. But after crossing the border, security staff was all around.

-Were these Syrians or Russians?

Syrians naturally. I saw no Russians. In the hotel, however, I heard Russians spoken twice.

-How did it feel driving thru Lebanon? No safe place, considering the Estonian bicyclists who got kidnapped there in 2011?

(Laughing.) No safe place, sure. But once you have decided, it is no longer terrible.

We were to go early in the morning. At night, I happened to read in the news how, next to the border point, an ISIS gang attempted to get into Lebanon by force. I thought I’d say: «I’m sick, you know, and not about to go anywhere!» But I pulled myself together. And I did go! It was no longer terrible. But there I began to see things from another angle. So many maimed people, so many homeless. At times one feels embarrassed for trembling before them.

-While in Syria, did you feel like in a conflict zone?

Don’t know. Damascus, for instance, was surprisingly clean. Very clean. And very green, flowers blooming. Well, this is normal in any dictatorship. But it was surprising.

-Many a suburb of Damascus is under ISIS or rebel control. Did you detect no military activity? Like hearing explosions?

I heard nothing. But at the hotel, locals were saying that the closest ISIS position was three kilometres from there. Come to think of it, it’s 40 minute’s walk. Naturally, one wants to leave quickly.

-The «technical» issue still needs clarification. How do you explain, is it true that part of your trip was paid by Syrian government?

O my, what part?! Syrian government – my own foolishness, but so be it – paid the night at the Damascus hotel because I could not book the room. Till the last moment I did not know where we would be spending the night because, for the sake of security, the trip did not even have a schedule. We went there blind. We had not the slightest idea where or when we would meet whom. They were fearful for our security. Downtown, I saw at least eight people around us, watching for our safety. Later, on the pictures, I discovered these one and the same guys standing next to me.

-Was the trip the initiative of the MEPs?

It was the initiative of Syrian embassy in Spain. We were there at their invitation.

-Was the proposal made long ago or did it come suddenly?

For me it was extempore . The colleagues invited me to join them about a month ago. But they had been discussing this from the winter. Thrice, the visit was postponed for security reasons.

-How do we call the trip? A business trip?

For me, doubtless, this was a business trip. I intend to definitely talk about what I saw at a meeting of my faction, of the impressions and the proposals. I believe I will find supporters to that approach.

With the polemic in Estonia, I am disturbed by nobody talking about the point. In no way did I go there to congratulate [the Syrian President Bashshār] al-Assad o his birthday. I wanted to see with my own eyes what is going on and what the people are saying. I have a very definite proposal how to help the people while leave Mr al-Assad under sanctions.

No one talks about that. Understood – it’s the no news season and the Yana Toom name helps attract attention. I understand that.

-So the purpose of your trip was…?

Here, at the European Parliament, we have this expression fact-finding mission. For me it was interesting. I wanted to see with mine own eyes, I do not like these X-files – like one is supposed to take it for granted that this is just the way it is.

-Am I getting it right that, at your estimation also, Mr al-Assad is a dictator and the sanctions on Syria need to be alleviated for the sake of the people firstly?

Mr al-Assad is definitely a dictator. He knows that, and the fellow citizens know that. But in this case this is not the issue. If there is anybody at all on whom it depends what becomes of the refugee crisis, this doubtless isn’t, figuratively speaking Urmas Paet [MEP and former foreign minister from Estonia] but Mr al-Assad, rather. Talking to anybody at all, one would talk to those who play a role.

-Once more returning to this unpleasant issue of money. Will you have the business trip compensated as a MEP, or will you pay out of own purse?

Every MEP has a budget for business trips into third countries. I do not recall the sum exactly. Between €4,000 and €5,000 or so. I have used it once as I went to lectures at Cambridge. That was about a month ago.

Now, I filed application for compensation. If they find it acceptable, they will compensate. If not, I will make it. No problem. At that, pursuant to European Parliament rules I declared that a night at hotel was paid for me. They need to know that. This is no bribe. Let’s see how they look at that.