Support grew for Syria’s opposition Monday despite threats by Damascus to act against any country that recognises a new grouping aimed at toppling President Bashar al-Assad’s repressive regime.
European Union foreign ministers said the bloc “welcomes the efforts of the political opposition to establish a united platform,” and hailed the creation of the Syrian National Council (SNC) “as a positive step forward.”
“It calls on the international community also to welcome these efforts,” added a statement approved by the EU’s 27 ministers in Luxembourg.
While short of outright recognition, the statement comes a day after Syria threatened retaliation should nations recognise the SNC.
“It is not on the same lines as our recognition of Libya’s National Transitional Council,” a European diplomat said. “But 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 Sunday, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem warned Damascus will retaliate against any country that recognises the SNC, set up in Istanbul in late August.
But arriving at Monday’s talks, 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, 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,” he added.
The EU ministers also 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 the UN says 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 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.
The ministers also said the EU was “deeply disappointed” at the failure to obtain a UN Security Council resolution condemning Assad’s brutal abuse, which was vetoed by Russia and China last week.
“We will be discussing what further pressure we can apply,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told journalists.
However Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow and Beijing “propose to adopt a balanced resolution that would condemn violence from both sides.”
“At the same time we need to demand from Assad a continuation of reforms which he has already embarked upon,” he told Profil magazine in comments released on Monday.
“Apart from that, we need to encourage the Syrian opposition to come to the negotiating table and try to reach an agreement,” Lavrov said, adding that the West of seeking to discourage the opposition from holding talks with Assad.
His remarks came as the Kremlin’s Africa envoy Mikhail Margelov and Qadri Jamil, a communist member of the so-called “internal opposition” in Syria, urged all parties to negotiate.
“The Russian veto against the Syria resolution is by no means carte blanche for the current regime in Syria to behave as it pleases, it is not an indulgence for either the regime or the opposition,” the state RIA Novosti news agency quoted Margelov as saying.
Critics see Jamil as too close to Assad. He denies this, saying he represents the “patriotic” opposition as opposed to those based outside Syria and siding with the West.
Other members of the “internal opposition,” including respected writer Michel Kilo, are due in Paris on Tuesday.
Members of the Coordination for National Democratic Change, they have not joined the SNC but met with it in a conference of opposition groups in Stockholm at the weekend.
Meanwhile Assad’s media adviser Buthaina Shaaban attacked Turkey, which has kept constant pressure on Damascus by hosting gatherings of Syrian dissidents and repeatedly calling on the regime to introduce reforms.
“We had the best relations as you know and therefore we expected Turkey to support the march for pluralism and democracy in Syria rather than give statements that are helping to inflame the situation in Syria and to support the armed gangs there,” she told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.
Syrian activists said that at least 14 civilians were killed by security forces on Sunday while 17 security personnel died in clashes with mutinous troops refusing to shoot at protesters.
On Monday, a 25-year-old man was killed in the Damascus suburb of Saqba on Monday when security forces opened fire to prevent students from staging a protest, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement.