Raising the bar, EU slaps sanctions on Assad

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
May 24, 2011 04:59

At a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels, the European Union amped up pressure on Syrian President's Bashar Assad's government to end violence.




Protestors in Syria

Protestors in Syria 311. (photo credit: Reuters)

The European Union imposed sanctions on Syrian President Bashar Assad and other officials on Monday, raising pressure on his government to end weeks of violence against pro-reform protesters.

EU foreign ministers agreed at a meeting in Brussels to expand restrictions against Syria by adding Assad and nine senior members of the government to a list of those subject to a freeze of assets and banned from travelling to the EU.

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The move follows a ban on 13 of Assad’s closest allies and an arms embargo, imposed earlier in May in response to a crackdown on protesters. The 27 EU foreign ministers said in a statement they had decided to further strengthen these restrictive measures by designating additional persons, including at the level of he highest leadership. The EU is determined to take further measures without delay should the Syrian leadership choose not to change its current path.”

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the sanctions were unlikely to effect real change in Damascus.

“It will be difficult for any international sanctions to have an effect on Bashar Assad because he’s clearly locked in a battle for his life,” he told The Jerusalem Post by phone. “I don’t think this is a gamechanger. Where he’s looking for signals is the Saudis and Turks, and much less from the United States.”

He added that Assad “takes US animosity as a constant, not as a variable.”

“Syria’s first instinct is to make trouble and then to say, ‘If you give us these things, we’ll stop making trouble.’ So it’s hard for people in the United States to see how we could build a good relationship with Syria with this government,” he said.

Alterman added that it was not yet clear what a future Syrian government would look like.

“My guess is... there would be a larger preference [among US officials] for Assad going than staying. But it hasn’t come down to that, because the US isn’t in a position to decide whether he stays or goes.”

Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal said it was important to maintain pressure to ensure “fundamental change” in Syria, and that imposing sanctions on Assad and his entourage was ‘a clear signal that we will not condone his policy of violence and repression. He has to make the choice now.”

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British Foreign Secretary William Hague said extending sanctions to Assad was the right thing to do.

“The repression in Syria continues and it is important to see the right to peaceful process and the release of political prisoners and taking the path of reform, not repression,” he said.

Syrian security forces killed 11 people in the city of Homs on Saturday during a funeral for some of those killed in the crackdown, witnesses said. Human rights groups estimate that more than 800 civilians have been killed by security forces in more than two months of popular protests that have spread from southern Syria to towns across the country.

Monday’s EU decision follows a heated debate among its 27 governments about the effectiveness of imposing sanctions on Assad, with some questioning whether the EU can be effective in cutting off his access to cash by imposing asset freezes. But they appeared to agree that an escalation of pressure on Assad was needed quickly.

Germany’s top diplomat, Guido Westerwelle, said it was necessary to move against Syria’s top leaders.

‘If someone represses his own people like that, responds to peaceful demonstrations with force, this can’t be left unanswered by the European Union,” he said.

The United States extended sanctions to Assad and six senior officials last Wednesday to raise the pressure on his government to halt the crackdown on protesters.

The EU ministers said those responsible for violence against protesters should be held accountable and urged the Syrian leadership to grant access to a UN human rights mission and to humanitarian organizations.

“The EU is deeply concerned at continuing mass arrests, intimidations and instances of torture and calls for their immediate halt,” the statement said. “The EU calls for the immediate release of all those arrested for their participation in peaceful protests, as well as of all political prisoners and human rights defenders.”

The ministers urged the Syrian authorities to respond to the demands of the people and launch an inclusive national dialogue and implement meaningful political reforms without delay through a concrete timetable.

The bloc said it had decided to suspend all preparations in relation to new bilateral cooperation programs with Syria and would consider suspension of further assistance.

Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation, wrote Monday that achieving a resolution in Syria and the wider region promised to be exceedingly complex.

“Any foreign power hoping to promote peace, stability and democratic inclusion in the Middle East must account for the Israeli-Palestinian divide, the Sunni-Shia divide, the Muslim- Christian divide, widespread anti-Semitism, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the security of oil supplies pumped by weak regimes, al-Qaida and related radicals, tribalism, corruption, and a picturesque lineup of despots,” Coll wrote on The New Yorker website. “For half a century, the region has made outside idealists look like fools, turned realists into complicit cynics, and consigned local heroes – Yitzhak Rabin, Anwar Sadat – to martyrdom.”

“Syria has been a fulcrum of regional politics, and it is pivotal to the futures of Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinians,” he wrote. “Syria’s future is pivotal to the future of the region, and the country requires credible leadership. The time for hopeful bargaining with Assad has passed.”


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