NICOSIA: As calls mount for an end to the bloody violence in Syria, European Union foreign ministers meet Friday to try and find a way out of a conflict threatening a humanitarian crisis in Europe's backyard.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has put Syria top of the agenda for a two-day informal ministerial meeting in Cyprus which, at just 110 kilometers (70 miles) from the Syrian coast at its closest point, is the bloc's nearest member to the conflict.
The 27-nation bloc has been in the frontline of efforts to get President Bashar Assad to step aside since the beginning of the conflict in March last year.
But after 17 rounds of sanctions, including embargos on arms exports and oil imports, and a freeze on the assets of scores of Assad's lieutenants, Ashton said in a letter to ministers seen by AFP that it was time "to take forward our work."
"Given the dramatic developments unfolding in Syria and the appointment of Lakhdar Brahimi as new envoy of the U.N. secretary general, I would like to exchange views on the tragic situation on the ground and on how to adjust the EU's response," she said in the August 31 note.
In his first comments since taking over as the new U.N.-Arab League envoy, Brahimi called the death toll "staggering" and the destruction "catastrophic".
Ashton's to-do list calls for improved liaison with the Syrian opposition, more humanitarian aid and, last but not least, preparing for a political transition.
"Sooner or later, Assad will fall and the EU will have to be ready to respond. We must prepare well in advance," said a European diplomat who asked not to be named.
But Europe remains divided over how best to help Syria's fractured opposition, under fire from many capitals reluctant to provide support due to its continuing divisions and the presence of Islamist extremists fighting on its behalf.
In Rome this week, French President Francois Hollande renewed a call on Assad opponents to quickly form an "alternative government".
The French leader has pledged immediate recognition from Paris to "a provisional, inclusive and representative" government.
"The sooner we can find a real interlocutor in the opposition, the easier it will be for the EU to help it," a diplomatic source told AFP.
"If we can offer promises of recognition this could help the opposition to unite," said another European diplomat.
But Washington has cautioned that before setting up any transitional government, the opposition first needs to unite around plan.
"That's the first order of business -- for them to all agree on what a transition ought to look like," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said late last month.
In a letter to their counterparts, the foreign ministers of France and Italy have asked that the talks also touch on an international inquiry into human rights violations by the Assad regime and seek ways of easing the humanitarian crisis.
Some 235,000 Syrians have fled the country while 1.2 million are displaced inside the country, but the situation has deteriorated sharply since as Assad forces have fought rebel fighters in the two largest cities Damascus and Aleppo.
More than 100,000 people fled Syria in August, a record since the start of the conflict, meaning how to prepare for a potential humanitarian crisis on Europe's doorstep will be high in the minds of the ministers.
Turkey, which along with Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, is hosting tens of thousands of refugees, has suggested creating protected safe havens inside Syria for civilians fleeing the violence.
But the idea fell on deaf ears at the UN Security Council last week amid concern even among Western governments over the implications of such a controversial military operation.
France is expected instead to urge its partners at Friday's talks in the Cypriot resort of Paphos to find ways to help funnel medicines, cash and other resources to civilians trapped in rebel-held areas.