EU holds hand out to Syria opposition, pressuring Assad
The EU held out a hand to Syria's opposition grouping Monday, welcoming its formation and urging the world to do the same, as it readies new sanctions against Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Ramping up the pressure on Damascus, the European Union "welcomes the efforts of the political opposition to establish a united platform" and notes the creation of the Syrian National Council (SNC) "as a positive step forward", EU foreign ministers said.
"It calls on the international community also to welcome these efforts", added a statement approved by the bloc's 27 ministers at talks in Luxembourg.
While short of outright recognition, the statement comes a day after Syria threatened retaliation should nations recognise the newly-formed SNC.
Asked why the ministers had failed to go the extra step of recognising the SNC, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said: "I think as in any situation we need to examine carefully what relationship we have."
"It's a big step to recognise and we will take it only when ministers think it's the right thing to do," she added.
Spain's Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez recalled that the EU had agreed to recognise Libya's CNT only several months into the rebellion and after it received support from Arab states. "There is still a long way to go," she said.
A European diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity told AFP that "we needed to make a gesture to the SNC to counter the regime's bid to create puppet groups".
As Assad renewed a pledge of reforms at the weekend, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem warned Damascus would retaliate against any nation that recognises the SNC, set up in Istanbul in late August, uniting key groups opposed to Assad's rule.
But French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said: "We want contacts with the Syrian opposition."
The SNC groups the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), an activist network spurring protests in Syria, the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood as well as Kurdish and Assyrian groups and Syrian exiles.
"We have to know who they are," said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini. "We would like very much to have their programme, proposals and, if possible, roadmaps."
"We can no longer accept this regime of Syria which continues to kill Syrians," Frattini added.
In their statement, the EU ministers urged Assad "to step aside to allow a political transition" and reaffirmed the bloc's determination to tighten the noose with fresh sanctions, failing an end to a relentless crackdown on dissent that has claimed more than 2,900 lives since March.
An eighth round of EU sanctions is expected this week, extending a ban on oil imports and investments in the oil sector to a Syrian bank, named by a diplomat as the Commercial Bank of Syria.
"Those targeted by the EU restrictive measures must realise the consequences of their actions and distance themselves from the regime if they want to avoid being subject to EU sanctions," the EU statement said.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said the EU had done a fair amount to sanction Syria, particularly by targeting oil, but that the country had fairly substantial hard currency reserves "so it will take a while until that starts to bite".
The ministers also said the EU was "deeply disappointed" at the failure to obtain a UN Security Council resolution condemning Assad's brutal abuse. Last week, China and Russia vetoed a European resolution condemning the crackdown.
"We will be discussing what further pressure we can apply," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told journalists. "It was a disappointment that we could not pass the UN resolution."
Frattini said a resolution prepared by China and Russia "in substance condemns the violence by the regime and violence of the demonstrators".
"But there's no comparison. You can't compare violence which has caused thousands of deaths to street demonstrations," he added.
© 2011 AFP