BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union foreign ministers agreed new sanctions against Syria Monday, targeting its central bank and seven cabinet ministers to try to curb funding for the government and increase pressure on President Bashar al-Assad.
The measures, expected to be enforced this week, include prohibiting trade in gold and other precious metals with Syrian state institutions and a ban on cargo flights from Syria operated by the country’s carriers.
“Today’s decisions will put further pressure on those who are responsible for the ruthless campaign of repression in Syria,” the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, said in a statement.
“The measures target the regime and its ability to conduct the appalling violence against civilians. As long as the repression continues, the EU will keep imposing sanctions.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the sanctions, at least the tenth round imposed by the EU on Syria, were critical for putting pressure on Assad to end violence in which around 6,000 people have been killed over the past 11 months.
But other than sanctions, few concrete steps emerged from Monday’s talks, underlying the West’s difficulty in finding a solution to the crisis in Syria, with efforts to get a U.N. Security Council resolution blocked by China and Russia.
EU governments renewed international calls on Damascus to allow humanitarian aid into Syria but offered no plan on how to enforce this. France, one of EU’s military powers, has suggested that U.N. set up humanitarian corridors in Syria to alleviate civilian suffering. But any such move would have to secure backing from Moscow and Beijing and that remains unlikely.
EU institutions and governments have allocated 8 million euros ($10.77 million) for humanitarian assistance in Syria, but lack of access is hindering the delivery of aid.
EU states also reiterated their support for the Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group, but said anti-government activists needed to come up with a unified approach and alleviate concerns about sectarian conflict in the country.
In her statement, Ashton referred to the Syrian National Council as “an important interlocutor” rather than as the EU’s sole point of contact with Syrian groups arrayed against Assad.
That contrasts with last year’s recognition of Libya’s rebel council as that country’s legitimate representative.
Western concerns at the divisions among the Syrian opposition are complicating efforts to lend support to them and adding to worries that the Syrian conflict could further inflame sectarian tensions throughout the Middle East.
“We’ve talked to a number of different groups in Syria and we’ve been saying to them: ‘come together and try to form a group together to be able to represent as many people as possible’,” Ashton said.
“Inclusivity would enable everyone to feel they have a future. We want to see a united opposition, that’s so important, if they are going to be able to reach out to all the people.”
Sunni Muslims account for about 70 percent of Syria’s 23 million people. Assad has strong backing among fellow Alawites, a sect with its roots in Shi’ite Islam. There are also large minority communities of Christians, ethnic Kurds and others.
EU governments have steadily ratcheted up sanctions against Syria over the past six months but have been careful to take the lead from Arab states in their approach.
Monday’s decision complements an oil embargo imposed in September, and extends the list of people targeted. More than a hundred Syrians, including Assad, already face asset freezes and visa bans.
European firms are also banned from doing business with nearly 40 Syrian companies and institutions, some of them large businesses involved in trading and exploring for oil.
Western sanctions are taking a toll on the Syrian economy and powering discontent among the middle classes, from which Assad draws much of his support.
Oil sanctions have damaged a vital source of hard-currency income - EU states used to buy some 90 percent of oil exports, and the Syrian pound has hit record lows against the dollar on the black market.
But Assad shows no sign of easing the crackdown on protesters and armed rebels fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.
Reporting by Justyna Pawlak; Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Alastair Macdonald