The European Union reacted to escalating violence in Syria by imposing fresh sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime on Monday, while it urged the country’s opposition forces to work more closely together.
At a meeting of EU foreign ministers, the 27-country bloc agreed, as expected, to place sanctions on Syria’s central bank and seven government ministers. It also signed off on a ban on cargo flights from Syrian airline carriers and on trade in gold, diamonds and some other precious metals with Syria.
U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said the sanctions will “further restrict the access to finance” of Assad’s regime. “We continue to do what we can to support the Arab League plan and a peaceful transition in Syria rather than the appalling violence that we continue to see.”
The sanctions move was widely expected. The regional bloc confirmed it will freeze the assets of the Syrian central bank but would ensure that “legitimate trade” can continue under certain strict conditions.
With the United Nations putting the death toll at 5,400 last year, and casualties rapidly rising in 2012, the EU has already slapped a crude-oil embargo on Syria and placed a travel ban and asset freeze on Mr. Assad and many of his top government and military officials.
In a statement after a two-hour discussion about Syria, EU foreign ministers called for Syrian authorities to allow humanitarian organizations “full and unimpeded access” to the country and condemned what it called Mr. Assad’s “ruthless campaign of repression against the civilian population and its systematic and widespread violation of human rights.”
The foreign ministers said they would hold those responsible for the violence accountable for their actions.
The EU foreign ministers also warned they would push further sanctions “as long as the repression continues.”
Ministers insisted that military action was off the table. They said they wouldn’t breach an arms embargo on Syria by directly supplying the opposition with arms and that a peacekeeping force could be sent to Syria only once the violence ends.
The ministers recognized the Syrian National Council as a “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people, echoing a similar recognition of the SNC on Friday at a Friends of Syria contact group of more than 60 nations meeting in Tunis.
But the EU ministers urged opposition forces to work more closely together—setting up a coordination mechanism and agreeing to “a set of shared principles for working towards an orderly and peaceful transition.”
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the meeting, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said the SNC could provide leadership to Mr. Assad’s opponents but said the opposition must include people from across Syria’s ethnic and religious divides—including Christians, Kurds and Mr. Assad’s Allawite community.
Friday’s Friends of Syria meeting backed an Arab plan calling on President Assad to cede power, and pledged to prepare to deliver emergency humanitarian aid to Syria.
On Sunday, Syrians voted in a referendum on a new constitution as fighting raged in parts of the country and the city of Homs remained under artillery attack.
U.K. Foreign Secretary Hague said that vote had “fooled nobody.”
Separately Monday, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she was “cautiously optimistic” that the international community can resume talks with Iran on its nuclear program.
Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, wrote to Ms. Ashton earlier this month saying he hoped for talks as soon as possible.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, on his way into the meeting of EU foreign ministers, said talks were now “a question of timing.”
The U.S. and many EU nations say Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies.
Meanwhile, Mr. Juppé told reporters that EU member states were now in agreement that Serbia should win candidacy status—meaning that Belgrade can start accession talks with the EU.
However several EU diplomats said that while Serbia was likely to get the green light Tuesday, concerns from a couple of smaller member states meant an agreement wasn’t yet a certainty.
The foreign ministers also agreed to extend sanctions on 21 Belarus officials, including 19 judges, at Tuesday’s European affairs meeting, several EU diplomats said. But the diplomats said objections from Slovenia and Latvia blocked a deal to include leading businessman Yury Chizh, who was on an earlier draft list of sanctions targets.
Ms. Ashton confirmed the EU will look at a “comprehensive list” of potential sanctions targets next month, including unlisted Belarus firms and business leaders.