EU, outraged by Syrian ‘barbarity’, prepares new sanctions

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EU leaders gathered in Brussels expressed outrage at the 'barbarity' of the repression in Syria, sending a discrete message to Moscow that Europeans were hoping for a gesture from Russia at the UN Security Council after Sunday's presidential election.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Friday (2 March) that he hoped Russia would lift its opposition to a Security Council resolution backing an Arab League plan for a transition of power in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad's forces have brutally attacked demonstrators.

Verbal sparring between the United States and Russia has taken on an ugly tone lately against the background of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's determination to reclaim the Kremlin in a presidential election on Sunday.

The confrontational tone with the US and the Western community is interpreted by many as an attempt by Putin to woo voters at home by flexing Russia's muscle on the international stage.

Russia and China have twice vetoed Security Council resolutions condemning Damascus and calling for an end to the violence, saying Western and Arab nations are pushing for Libya-style "regime change" in Syria.

"It's frustrating, I can see the dead accumulate, the atrocities accumulate, we do everything we can to remove obstacles to this," Sarkozy said Friday at a news conference following the EU leadership summit in Brussels.

"It's hard, but I hope that when a number of political deadlines are behind us in other countries, we can have a more relaxed discussion about the international community and Syria."

Sarkozy himself is facing a difficult re-election in a two-round contest to be held 22 April and 6 May.

The French president said he was in favour of establishing "humanitarian zones, at least at the borders of Syria," to receive people who are persecuted from the regime.

Two French journalists, Edith Bouvier and William Daniels, escaped yesterday from Syria to Lebanon, to the great relief of Paris.

But Sarkozy excluded other options for now, like establishing a humanitarian aid corridor or supporting the Syrian anti-government movement with weapons. "We will be favourable to go a step further to support the democrats in Syria. But we will do nothing until there is a resolution from the Security Council," he said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron called on Russia to reconsider its stance on Syria. "The Russians and Chinese need to look hard at the suffering of Syria and think hard about supporting the criminal regime," Cameron said, saying that Assad's government was "butchering its own people" in a scene of "medieval barbarity."

Cameron and Sarkozy spearheaded NATO's air campaign against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya last year, after the UN Security Council authorised the enforcement of a no-flight zone over the country. Not a single Western soldier was killed during the operation, which lasted seven months and paved the way for opposition forces to oust – and eventually kill – Gaddafi.

Further sanctions underway

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy acknowledged that the text on Syria, adopted by EU leaders at the summit, did not go far beyond what the Union had already adopted at the ministerial level. But he said the Union had "much more of a common foreign policy" than it is believed.

He also insisted that according to the summit conclusions, those guilty of atrocities in Syria would be brought to justice.

EU leaders also instructed their ministers to prepare "further targeted restrictive measures against the regime" and reiterated the call for Assad make room for a peaceful transition of power.

"As soon as a democratic transition begins, the EU is ready to develop a new partnership and provide assistance," their summit statement says.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's "days are numbered", US President Barack Obama said in a recent interview. The US President also said that Assad's relinquishment of power is "a matter not of if, but when." Obama also acknowledged that the Syrian crisis is wider and more complicated that of Libya a year ago.

Turkish President Abdullah Gül told Reuters that Russia and Iran would soon realise they had little choice but to join international diplomatic efforts for Assad's removal. Vladimir Putin might scale back his strong words if he wins the presidential election, Reuters reported, quoting analysts.

"He does not understand that his harsh rhetoric, coming as the United States is also going into a presidential election campaign, just strengthens the hand of those people [in the United States] who are critical of cooperation with Russia," said Stephen Hadley, national security advisor to former President George W. Bush.

Both the United States and Russia should try to "get rid of the rhetoric and expectations of reset" and cooperate where they can, Hadley said.

The United Nations says Syrian security forces have killed more than 7,500 civilians since the revolt began last March. Syria's government said in December that "armed terrorists" had killed more than 2,000 soldiers and police during the unrest.

In particular, the residential district of Baba Amro in Homs became a symbol of resistance to President Bashar al-Assad, after government troops surrounded it with tanks and artillery and shelled it intensively for weeks, killing and wounding civilians cowering in its ruined buildings.

Assad, a London-trained eye doctor, is increasingly isolated internationally in his struggle to crush the armed insurrection.

Russia and China have twice vetoed Security Council resolutions condemning Damascus and calling for an end to the violence, saying Western and Arab nations are pushing for Libya-style "regime change" in Syria.

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