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More sanctions

Christoph Hasselbach, Brussels / mllOctober 16, 2012

EU foreign ministers have agreed on further sanctions for Syria, and have backed Turkey as the conflict threatens to spill across its borders. But the EU continues to refuse to take in Syrian refugees.

European High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton (L) chats with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (R) Wiktor Dabkowski
Image: picture alliance/ZUMA Press

Europe has increased the pressure on Syrian President, Bashar Assad. The European Union's foreign ministers, meeting on Monday (15.10.2012) in Luxembourg, agreed on further sanctions aimed at the Syrian state airline and additional members of the ruling circle. They will be subject to travel restrictions and their bank accounts will be frozen.

But it proved impossible to use what could have been a rare opportunity to bring Russia on board. In an unusual move for the EU ministers, their Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, had been invited to join them on the evening before the meeting.

Russia, together with China, has so far blocked tougher action against Syria in the United Nations Security Council. Many observers believe a breakthrough on Syria will only be possible if Russia moves closer to the European position. But EU ministers said afterwards that the meeting in Luxembourg had had little practical effect.

"We had an exchange of ideas, but, as has been the case for many months with Russia, we didn't reach any agreement.," said the British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle warned of "a growing danger of a conflagration and a proxy war," in which Russia could have no interest.

One of the few who saw any progress as a result of the talks was Westerwelle's counterpart in Luxembourg, Jean Asselborn, who said, "I am convinced that the Russian side is aware that the brutality in Syria must be stopped."

Understanding for Turkey's response

Asselborn was also convinced that Russia would try to prevent the conflict from becoming internationalized, especially against the background of the risk that Turkey could be drawn in militarily following the repeated shelling of Turkish territory by Syrian artillery. Turkey also forced a Syrian civil aircraft to land last Wednesday on suspicion that it was carrying military goods from Russia to Damascus.

Westerwelle publicly backed Turkey at the meeting and showed understanding for its domestic difficulty in showing reserve after apparent Syrian or Russian provocation. Only if Turkey feels that the international community is showing solidarity, he said, would it feel secure enough to be able to show moderation and de-escalate the conflict.

Syrian refugees waiting in a line for registering in Turkey EPA/CEM GENCO/ANADOLU AGENCY
Turkey is overwhelmed with Syrian refugees, but the EU won't helpImage: picture-alliance/dpa

'Refugees don't want to go to Europe': foreign ministers

But when it comes to the issue of refugees, the EU's solidarity has tight limits. Many of the Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey, which feels overwhelmed by the influx.

"Europe must help people who are looking for a secure place to which they can flee," Egemen Bagis, Turkish minister for EU affairs, told the German newspaper Die Welt. "It's time for Europe to help."

But the EU refuses to take in refugees in any numbers. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt says the EU wants a development "that makes it possible for these hundreds of thousands of people who have been forced to flee to return home. And that's what they want as well."

Westerwelle agrees, but he adds, "Naturally we are ready, as far as the situation allows, to take in refugees, for example for medical treatment."

Additional sanctions for Iran

Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, draws a red line on a graphic of a bomb during an address to the United Nations General Assembly Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu says there are lines Iran must not crossImage: Getty Images

The EU has also tightened the thumbscrews on Iran over its nuclear program. "Since the talks have not brought adequate substantial progress, we will have to toughen the sanctions," said Westerwelle.

The EU continues to accuse Iran of developing nuclear weapons under the cover of a nuclear power generation program. And Tehran continues to deny the accusations.

The latest sanctions affect Iranian banks and the energy industry. For example, all payments between EU and Iranian banks will be banned. A ban on gas imports has been added to the ban on oil imports, and trade guarantees have been stopped.

But Bildt emphasized that the sanctions were only part of a strategy. Indirectly he rejected demands, mainly coming from Israel, for preventative military action.

"I think there are voices that sound like they want a war," he said. "We don't want war; we want a diplomatic solution."

But so far neither sanctions nor diplomatic initiatives have been able to move Iran from its course. The EU is relying on the long-term effect of its strategy, which is to dry out the financial sources for the nuclear program while keeping the offer of negotiation open.