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EU heaps new sanctions on Syria

The Council of the European Union is seeking to tighten a financial noose around the regime of Syria's Bashar al-Assad.

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    British Foreign Minister William Hague waits for the start of a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the EU Council building in Brussels on Monday, Feb. 27. EU foreign ministers are trying to increase the pressure on Syria's regime to stop its violent crackdown on opponents.
    Virginia Mayo/AP
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The European Union announced stepped-up sanctions against the Syrian regime today that, to my eyes, looks like a preliminary step to more serious sanctions on Bashar al-Assad and those around him.

In a statement, Catherine Ashton, the EU's representative for foreign affairs and security policy, said "Today's decisions will put further pressure on those who are responsible for the ruthless campaign of repression in Syria. The measures target the regime and its ability to conduct the appalling violence against civilians. As long as the repression continues, the EU will keep imposing sanctions."

The EU also explained that the "Syrian regime's continued use of violence against civilians" prompted the new measures. One wonders if war crimes indictments are not far off. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya and members of his circle were hit with International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments far sooner during that country's uprising, and if only half of the reports coming out of Syria are to be believed, Mr. Assad long ago passed Qaddafi's triggering threshold.

Of course, such decisions are political, and that's probably why a formal war crimes measure hasn't happened till now. But it sure looks like the window for "dialogue" that has been left open is down to just about a sliver.

The new EU sanctions call for "trade in gold, precious metals and diamonds with Syrian public bodies and the central bank" to be prohibited within the EU.  "Cargo flights operated by Syrian carriers will not have access to EU airports, with the exception of mixed passenger and cargo flights. The Council also froze the assets of the Syrian central bank within the EU, while ensuring that legitimate trade can continue under strict conditions. Finally, the Council subjected seven ministers of the Syrian government, who are associated with the human rights violations, to an asset freeze and a visa ban."

Clearly, the killing of Marie Colvin of the UK's Sunday Times and French photographer Remi Ochlik in Homs last week has galvanized the latest step (as has the evidence of ongoing killings of Syrian civilians. Two EU citizens and reporters were wounded in the attack that killed Colvin and Ochlik, and efforts to evacuate them in recent days have been confounded.

"The EU strongly condemns the illegal attacks against medical staff and installations carrying the symbols of the Red Crescent. The Syrian authorities must immediately cease all violence. They must also allow full and unimpeded access of relief personnel from humanitarian organisations for the timely delivery of humanitarian aid to people in need of assistance," the EU council's statement says.

The full statement on the new sanctions is here.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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