Europe and the United States tightened economic sanctions on Syria Thursday, ramping up international pressure as the UN said more than 4,000 people had died in a crackdown on dissidents.
In a new bout of violence, a Syrian human rights group said troops raided towns and villages in the flashpoint provinces of Homs, Hama, and Daraa, killing 16 civilians and detaining at least two dozen others.
At least 4,000 people have now died since anti-government protests broke out in mid-March, UN rights chief Navi Pillay said, warning the real toll could be grimmer still as “the information coming to us is that it’s much more”.
EU foreign ministers met Arab League secretary general Nabil al-Arabi over lunch in Brussels in a bid to show a united front against President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on protesters.
The ministers agreed to work with the League as it implements unprecedented sanctions against Assad’s regime.
“They believe that this could have a strong effect on the regime. They are continuing to put the pressure on, we are very keen to support their leadership on that,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said after the talks.
For his part, Arabi rejected “any accusation that the Arab League is inviting any intervention” in Syria after Damascus accused members of the pan-Arab organisation of pushing for an “internationalisation” of the unrest.
The EU slapped a 10th round of sanctions on the regime, adding bans on exporting gas and oil industry equipment to Syria and trading Syrian government bonds in an effort to choke off funding.
The EU will refrain from offering Syria loans at lower rates and longer grace periods than offered on commercial markets, while European firms are barred from selling software that could be used to monitor Internet and telephone communications.
The EU added 12 individuals and 11 entities to a blacklist of people and companies hit by assets freezes and travel bans, diplomats said.
“All this shows, that we Europeans, together with the Arab League, are determined to act against this cruelty and repression,” said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.
Renewing a call for Assad to step aside for a democratic transition, the EU ministers warned in a statement that the violent repression risked taking Syria down “a very dangerous path of violence, sectarian clashes and militarisation”.
The United States welcomed the EU sanctions against Syria as well as other measures against Iran, an ally of Damascus, over Tehran’s disputed nuclear activities.
“These steps signal once again the resolve of the international community to address the assault on the fundamental rights of the Syrian people by the Assad regime,” the White House said.
Washington slapped economic sanctions on a top Syrian general and an uncle of Assad identified by the Treasury Department as a key financial advisor to the Syrian president.
The US measures also hit a defence ministry business, the Military Housing Establishment, and the government-controlled Real Estate Bank, which the Treasury said administers the government’s borrowings.
Angry at the sanctions, Syria suspended its participation in the Mediterranean Union, a French initiative inaugurated in 2008 to bolster cooperation between Europe, the Middle East and north Africa.
Meanwhile, the Syrian National Council, a civilian opposition group, said it has agreed to coordinate with the rebel Free Syrian Army in their common struggle against Assad.
“It is agreed that it would be a coordinated movement,” the SNC’s Khaled Khoja told AFP, in a change of tack from the civilian opposition’s previous reluctance to back the armed faction.
He said a meeting in the southern Turkish province of Hatay on November 28 was attended by SNC head Burhan Ghaliun and FSA chief Riyadh al-Asaad, whose forces comprise Syrian deserters.
“The council recognised the Free Syrian Army as a reality, while the army recognised the council as the political representative” of the opposition, Khoja said.
The meeting marked a new step in efforts to unite opposition to Assad, who is under growing pressure to step down.
“We agreed that the duty of the Free Syrian Army is to protect people, but not to attack,” said Khoja, a member of the SNC’s foreign relations committee.
The FSA’s duties, he said, include “protecting minorities, preventing possible conflicts among the factions by sending its troops to conflict areas”.