Arab League bans travel for Assad regime officials

Targets include Assad's brother, cousin; EU readies raft of economic sanctions against Syria.

Qatar PM, talks to Arab League Secretary-General (R) 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer )
Qatar PM, talks to Arab League Secretary-General (R) 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer )
BEIRUT - The Arab League put Syrian VIPs on a travel ban list on Thursday and European Union foreign ministers readied a raft of economic sanctions against President Bashar Assad to press him into stopping a military crackdown on popular protests.
Syria's crisis erupted in March with street unrest inspired by anti-authoritarian revolts elsewhere in the Arab world. But driven by Assad's iron fist policy towards civilian protesters, Syria may be sliding towards civil war as some soldiers and officers defect with their weapons to fight loyalist troops.
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An Arab League committee meeting in Cairo listed 17 people banned from travel to Arab states, including Assad's brother Maher who commands the military's elite Republican Guard and is Syria's second most powerful man.
The Egyptian state news agency said the draft blacklist in a sanctions policy adopted at the weekend by 19 of the League's 22 members includes the defense and interior ministers, intelligence officials and senior military officers.
Iraq and Lebanon, neighbors of Syria who have sensitive sectarian, strategic and trade relationships with Damascus, declined to join the League's sanctions campaign.
The Arab League committee charged with overseeing sanctions also recommended stopping flights to and from Syria starting in mid-December. But it said sales of wheat, medicine, gas and electricity should be exempted from the embargo.
The sanctions package was due to be finalized by Saturday.
In Brussels, foreign ministers of the 27-member EU were set to announce a new round of sanctions, adding people and firms to a list of targets already chosen and blacklisting the Syrian state oil company General Petroleum Corporation (GPC).
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Oil majors such as Royal Dutch Shell and France's Total could see their Syrian ventures grind to a halt as the GPC joins the roster of sanctioned companies, diplomatic sources told Reuters on Wednesday.
Already blacklisted by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control, GPC is responsible for supervising joint venture companies in Syria. Royal Dutch Shell and China National Petroleum Corporation are both partners of GPC through the Al-Furat joint venture.
Some diplomatic sources said the blacklisting would likely make it hard for European oil firms to keep operating in Syria.
"GPC would be designated, which would force European companies that are there to declare 'force majeure' (bowing to an event they could not anticipate or control)," said one of the European diplomatic sources.
Syrian oil comprises less than 1 percent of daily world output but represents a big chunk of Syrian government earnings.
The further tightening of sanctions may be a reaction to evidence that Syria has resumed exporting crude oil after an early bout of sanctions on European imports forced a temporary pause in oil flows.
Oil majors Shell and Total as well as the UK's Gulfsands have investments in Syria and have been forced to cut output in the country for lack of storage capacity.
Violence continues in Syria
Syrian troops shot dead six civilian protesters and army defectors killed seven soldiers on Wednesday as regional pressure grew on Assad to withdraw forces from restive cities, free prisoners and start talks with the opposition.
Syria's biggest trade partner Turkey suspended all financial credit dealings with Damascus and froze its assets, joining the Arab League in isolating Assad over his military crackdown. The United States urged other countries to follow suit.
The world's largest Muslim body, the Organization of Islamic Conference, urged Syria on Wednesday to "immediately stop the use of excessive force" against its citizens so as to avert any prospect of foreign intervention.
NATO air strikes helped rebels topple Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi but Western leaders have no appetite for similar action in Syria's case because of its volatile geo-politics straddling various fault lines of Middle East conflict.
Turkey, a NATO member with a 900-km (560-km) long border with Syria, says it does not want military intervention in its fellow Muslim state but is ready for any scenario and has raised the possibility of establishing a buffer zone should there be a mass exodus of Syrians fleeing worsening violence.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the rule of Assad, which began in 2000 and followed 31 years of power by his father Hafez al-Assad, had reached "the end of the road".
Turkey had $2.5 billion in bilateral trade with Syria last year and was long one of Assad's closest allies, but Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has lost patience with him. Turkey now hosts Syrian army defectors and opposition groups.
Under the terms of an Arab League deal aimed at ending the violence, Syria agreed earlier this month to withdraw the army from urban centres, free political prisoners, launch a dialogue with the opposition and admit League observers.
Syria has freed 912 prisoners held for taking part in anti-Assad protests, the state news agency SANA said on Wednesday, because they did "not have Syrian blood on their hands".
The move appeared to be a gesture towards Arab League calls for an end to the crisis, but the number of freed detainees would only be a small fraction of the total reported by rights activists to have been arrested.
United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan said he was still hoping Syria would admit monitors and avoid further sanctions.
European and Arab diplomats say the top United Nations human rights forum will paint a grim picture of events in Syria at a special session on Friday and is expected to accuse Assad's government of authorizing crimes against humanity.