EU foreign ministers seek to impose tougher sanctions on the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad as soon as next month, acknowledging that the actions taken so far have had little effect on the regime.
Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said his EU counterparts meeting in Cyprus on Saturday (8 September) had agreed new sanctions were needed and had tasked Catherine Ashton, the bloc's foreign policy chief, with preparing suggestions for talks next month.
"We need to go further in [targeting Syria's] financial sector and commercial activities," Reynders told Reuters after the meeting in Pafos, a luxury resort in Cyprus that is less than 400 kilometres from Damascus.
The agreement comes amid frustration that Assad is clinging to power despite a 17-month uprising against him and several rounds of EU sanctions. These include an arms embargo and travel bans and asset freezes on around 50 businesses and 150 people.
Ashton said the EU would also boost its efforts to help refugees and other victims of the Syrian conflict and support Lakhdar Brahimi, the new UN-Arab League special envoy.
"Sanctions are under review," Ashton told a news conference in Nicosia after the meeting, "not only to consider whether more sanctions should be taken but to make sure that the enforcement of sanctions is done properly and any ability to evade them is dealt with."
Some 20,000 people have been killed in the conflict, according to UN figures. Ashton said 230,000 people had fled the country, mostly to Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon.
‘Working with Russia’
Cypriot Foreign Minister Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis said EU countries believed it was important to work with Moscow, Assad's main diplomatic and military supporter, despite anger over Russia and China vetoing three UN Security Council attempts to exert more pressure on Syria.
"We have to continue to work with Russia because we want to have them on board," she said.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt warned it would be tough to find areas of the economy where sanctions could have a strong impact.
"There is very little we can do," Bildt told reporters.
One other option would be to create a buffer zone shielded from air strikes but the EU executive has said that would be impractical without a UN Security Council resolution authorising intervention.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said last week that France and Turkey had identified areas in the north and south of Syria that had escaped Assad's control, creating a chance for local communities to govern themselves without feeling they had to flee to neighbouring countries.
Other EU ministers were reluctant to support him for now.
"We need to go back to the capitals and see how we feel about it," Polish Foreign Minister Rados?aw Sikorski said. "Nobody knows what to do about Syria, other than try to convince the Syrian opposition to be better united."
Kristalina Georgieva, the commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, said the EU executive would donate an additional €50 million to help Syrian civilians. This brings to €200 million the assistance from the European Commission and member sates – roughly half of all international humanitarian aid to the crisis.
Speaking to the press in Brussels, she said that the international community had failed so far to unite on the political way forward, but that this should not be “an excuse” to do less on the humanitarian side.