LUXEMBOURG - EU foreign ministers imposed fresh sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime Monday but failed to iron out differences with Russia over ending a conflict threatening to spill across Syria’s borders.
With tension mounting between Turkey and Syria, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called for moderation between the two neighbours, warning that “the danger of a massive spillover in the region is on the rise”.
The European Union, responding to pleas from Turkey to help it cope with an influx of more than 100,000 Syrian refugees, pledged to continue assisting but made no offer to take them in.
“Clearly we need to concentrate on the shelter of refugees there,” Westerwelle said during talks among the 27 European Union foreign ministers.
“These refugees don’t want to leave their country for ever, they have family, they have personal ties with the country, they want to return as quickly as possible.”
As violence intensified in Syria, the EU, winner last week of the 2012 Nobel peace prize, agreed an assets freeze and travel ban against 28 Syrians and two firms, the bloc’s 19th round of restrictive measures against the Assad regime since the start of the conflict in March last year.
There were no details on those concerned. Their identities will be released Tuesday in the EU Official Journal.
Diplomats said the sanctions target people linked to violence against protesters, or firms accused of supplying equipment used by the regime to repress a protest movement now entering its 20th month.
Assad so far has shown no sign of buckling as long as Moscow maintains its support, despite embargos on oil imports and investment, and a ban on trade in gold and precious metals.
The latest sanctions bring to 181 the number of people and to 54 the number of companies on an EU blacklist, many of them members of Assad’s inner circle.
The new measures were accompanied by a ban on EU residents buying, shipping, insuring or assisting in any way Syrian companies that trade or transport arms.
With tensions between Turkey and Syria on the rise, the conflict was at the centre of closed door talks in Luxembourg on Sunday between the EU ministers and Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
The encounter was tense and produced little headway, said ministers and diplomats.
“We discussed Syria really in all its dimensions with Mr Lavrov last night,” said British Foreign Secretary Willian Hague. “I can’t say that we made any progress.”
Moscow, Damascus’s main arms supplier, has repeatedly refused to back international calls for Assad to step down and together with China jointly vetoed three rounds of UN Security Council sanctions against the Syrian leader.
Hague said Turkey’s confiscation of a cargo of radar equipment from a civilian flight from Moscow last week was raised during the three-and-a-half-hour dinner. A diplomatic source told AFP the atmopshere was “extremely tense” during discussion on Syria.
“We had an exchange of ideas,” Hague said. “But as has been the case for many months with Russia we didn’t reach any agreement.”
His French counterpart Laurent Fabius agreed. “The Russian view has not evolved,” he said. He wondered whether it had perhaps even reversed after Lavrov “explained that President Assad would never leave office”.
Westerwelle said it was “important to convince those who continue to protect the Assad regime that the danger of a wider blaze is mounting, that the danger of a proxy war is on the rise.
“It is also important to clearly tell Russia it has no interest in a spillover that would inflame the entire region.”
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told reporters that the “common ground” found between the EU and Russia at the dinner was to agree to support the efforts of new UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to halt a conflict that activists say has now claimed more than 33,000 lives.