Syria anti-Assad protest 370 R.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Handout)
BRUSSELS - European Union foreign ministers agreed new sanctions against Syria on Monday, targeting its central bank and several cabinet ministers to try to curb funding for the government and increase pressure on President Bashar 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, officials said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the sanctions were crucial to putting pressure on Assad to end violence that has killed thousands of civilians over the last 11 months.
"I hope we will agree further sanctions today which will further restrict the access to finance in particular of the regime," Hague told reporters before the meeting.
Echoing comments by other ministers, Hague said any military involvement in Syria to lend support to anti-Assad rebels was off the table for now, even in the form of a peacekeeping force that some Arab states appear to favor.
"Of course for that to work properly there would have to be a peace to keep. At the moment we don't have that," he said.
Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi said sanctions were the most the EU could do for now, saying it was the best that could be done without military intervention.
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.
"We can't underestimate that a Syrian ruler has to feed his people, has to provide goods for his country," Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger told Austrian radio before the meeting.
"If this gets harder and harder to do then it will be harder for him to withstand this internal pressure. I believe we are close to a civil war in Syria and this means the pressure is growing incredibly on him and his regime."
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.