BRUSSELS: Europe tightened the noose on President Bashar al-Assad Monday, sanctioning the Syrian leader for the first time as it responded to the change sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.
European Union foreign ministers also strengthened sanctions on Iran and were to take a fresh look at the Middle East peace process in the wake of US President Barack Obama’s new policy twist, as well as discuss events in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.
As the death toll continued to climb in Syria, the 27-nation bloc agreed to add the president, along with several leading officials, to an earlier blacklist.
“The repression in Syria continues,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague as he went into the talks with his counterparts.
“It is important to see the right to peaceful protest, the release of political prisoners and taking the path of reform, not repression, in Syria over the coming days.”
An EU diplomat said the sanctions aimed “to stop the violence and press Assad to agree to a process of reform, but not to force him to step down.”
Stepping up pressure on the Assad regime to call a halt to weeks of relentless violence, the EU earlier this month issued an arms embargo as well as a visa ban and assets freeze against the president’s brother, four of his cousins, and others in his inner circle.
Assad could have avoided the sanctions by listening to protesters and choosing the path of reform, said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.
“He did not choose this path. He continued to violently repress peaceful protests. This is why we must widen the sanctions, including against President Assad,” Westerwelle said.
“When a regime represses its own people this way, with violence, the EU must respond.”
Despite pressure from rights groups, European nations had held off hitting out at the Syrian leader in hopes of seeing what EU foreign policy chief dubbed “genuine and comprehensive political reform.”
As she joined the foreign ministers, Ashton said Syria’s “government has to act now.”
Turning to Iran, the ministers agreed to add more than 100 firms to a blacklist of companies hit by an assets freeze over Tehran’s disputed nuclear programme, diplomats said.
The new restrictive measures come amid efforts to jumpstart international talks aimed at convincing Iran to halt its nuclear activities.
Turning to Libya, the ministers are to seek how to inch forward, getting rebels and Moamer Kadhafi to agree to a ceasefire that would include a retreat by regime forces in order to launch a political dialogue.
“Member states currently are less united in the belief that Kadhafi must go before a ceasefire or political talks can begin,” said a diplomat. “But the rebel leadership will not budge on this point.”
NATO aircraft have been pounding regime forces for two months, and the alliance has vowed to keep up the pressure until Kadhafi stops attacking civilians and sends his troops back to their barracks.
An “important” statement is also expected in the wake of a landmark speech by Obama this week, saying a Palestinian state should be set up on the basis of the lines before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, as well as a recent unity deal between Mahmud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority and its rival, Hamas.
“The US is moving closer to the EU position,” said an EU diplomat. “We must now start to discuss a joint position on the issue of recognizing a Palestinian state.”
Ministers too will discuss ways of aiding the new pro-democracy regimes of Egypt and Tunisia, while looking at the turmoil in other parts of the Arab world, notably Bahrain and Yemen.