As tens of thousands of Syrians flee escalating war and chaos, the EU mulled ways of boosting humanitarian aid while beefing up sanctions and tightening an arms embargo against the regime Monday.
Joining talks with their European Union counterparts, the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Sweden called for more help for Syrians who had fled to safety in neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.
“We have to step up humanitarian assistance for the people fleeing,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague, as France’s Laurent Fabius and Sweden’s Carl Bildt demanded the EU “do more” to help Syria’s neighbours cope with the influx.
Brussels meanwhile announced it was increasing by 20 million euros ($24 million) its emergency aid to Syrian refugees to a total of 63 million euros.
“Hundreds of thousands of Syrians are in a desperate situation,” said the EU’s commissioner for humanitarian aid, Kristalina Georgieva.
While 120,000 refugees from the conflict in Syria have been officially registered, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees believes the number of displaced is 10 times as big.
“One million people may have been forced to flee inside the country since the conflict began,” the UN agemcy said last week.
Also high in the minds of the foreign ministers was how to prepare for a potential humanitarian crisis on Europe’s doorstep.
Cyprus, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, has warned that up to 200,000 foreign nationals may have to be evacuated from Syria, many of them also holding Syrian passports.
Cypriot Foreign Minister Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis has said the island nation, only 100 kilometres (62 miles) from Syria and Lebanon, is preparing an operation on the lines of its evacuation of 65,000 foreign nationals from Lebanon in 2006 during the Lebanon-Israel war.
At informal talks between home affairs ministers, the minister from Cyprus, Eleni Mavrou, said the bloc was preparing a system to help move Europeans as well as citizens from third countries from Syria to their own countries.
“We are monitoring the situation hour by hour,” said the EU’s home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem.
The EU foreign ministers, deeming President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime is nearing tipping-point, on Monday froze the assets of a further 26 Syrians and three firms and agreed to inspect all vessels and planes suspected of carrying arms to Damascus.
“We have to continue the pressure on Syria,” said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. “The situation is terrible. Sanctions are an important part of the pressure.”
Details of those targeted in this 17th round of EU sanctions will be released Tuesday. The latest measures bring to 155 people and 52 firms the total number on an EU blacklist.
Under the tightening of a May 2011 EU export ban on arms, EU nations that suspect a vessel in their territorial waters to be carrying suspect cargo for Syria, will be obliged to inspect it.
The same principle would be applied to air cargo.
Meanwhile, the ministers branded as “monstrous” and “unacceptable” a threat by Syria that it would resort to the use of chemical weapons in case of a foreign attack.
“Threatening to use chemical weapons is monstrous,” said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in a statement.
“It is unacceptable to say they would use chemical weapons under any circumstances,” echoed British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
In a statement issued after talks, the bloc’s 27 foreign ministers said: “The EU is seriously concerned about the potential use of chemical weapons in Syria.”
Syria denied the regime would ever use chemical or unconventional weapons against civilians, but admitted it would resort to their use “in case of external aggression.”
France was keeping a close eye on such weapons, however, said Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
“These installations are the object of very particular surveillance,” he said.