BRUSSELS -- The European Union has imposed sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and nine individuals close to him in response to Damascus's violent crackdown on antigovernment protesters.
The move came at a meeting in Brussels on May 23 of EU foreign ministers, who also widened sanctions on Iran over its disputed nuclear program.
Brussels adopted asset freezes and travel restrictions on 13 people close to Assad two weeks ago but stopped short of including the president himself, with some EU states arguing at the time that this could make it harder to encourage change in the country.
Cyprus, Greece, and Germany then opposed blacklisting the president but have now agreed to include him and other officials active in the regime.
It is believed that the latest crackdown on protesters in the country as well as the decision by the United States to include Assad on their blacklist made the EU unite behind stronger measures.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, maintained that the move would send a clear signal to the regime in Damascus.
"The message we are sending are very clear," Ashton said. "To stop the violence, to respect human rights and to embrace the genuine and concrete reforms that people are asking for. To change course and to respond to the needs and the demands of the people."
At least five people were shot dead by security forces on May 21 at funerals for slain protesters in the city of Homs.
Human rights groups estimate that more than 850 people have died in the clashes and clampdowns since an uprising against the regime started two months ago.
In a conclusion adopted on May 23, Brussels also called for an immediate halt to violence against protesters and demanded that Assad address the causes of the upheavals in the country. They also insisted on a "national dialogue" in the country, including a concrete timetable for political reform.
The EU member states also stand ready to review their bilateral cooperation with Syria, with the EU Council inviting the European Investment Bank (EIB) to not approve new financing operations in Syria for the time being.
Sending 'Strong' Message
Antigovernment protesters carry a banner during a rally in the central city of Homs on May 6.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters on arrival that the EU had to be "bold and ambitious" when it came to the uprisings in the Arab world, offering both more market access to countries that were willing to reform but also punish counties, such as Syria, that used force against their own people.
"We will also agree a wider range of sanction against Syria including extending the number of individuals subject to asset freeze and travel ban including the president of Syria," Hague said.
"I think that is the right thing to do. The repression in Syria continues and it is important to see the right of peaceful protest, the release of prisoner and taking the path of reform not repression."
Hague's Italian counterpart, Franco Frattini, concurred. "It is a very strong message that is necessary to show isolation to the regime," he said.
Despite the stricter sanctions, fears remain that the EU has little sway over the situation in Syria and that tougher measures instead might push Assad's government further away from dialogue with the opposition.
Speaking to RFE/RL, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt expressed doubt over how effective travel bans and asset freezes could be.
"That's a difficult question. It is the instrument we have and we are using it gradually making it stricter and stricter," Bildt said. "If it is efficient? We hope so but it is the only tool we have available."
Iran Sanctions Widened
Diplomats said the foreign ministers also agreed to add 100 Iranian companies to the EU's embargo list and imposed travel bans and assets freezes on five individuals in response to Tehran's refusal to halt its disputed nuclear activities.
"I also particularly want to welcome the intensified sanctions on Iran," Hague said. "It is important not to forget that while so many things are happening and changing in the Middle East, that Iran continues with its nuclear program. We have called in the United Kingdom for many months for an intensification of the peaceful pressure on Iran, and the new sanctions agreed today are a very important part of that."
EU diplomats said they believed many of the firms are "fronts" set up in Europe and "the individuals targeted are essentially their managers."
A council source told RFE/RL that the new sanctions are a way to increase the pressure on Iran and to stop it from "escaping" the existing sanctions.
The UN Security Council has adopted four sanctions resolutions to date aimed at ending disputed elements of Iran's nuclear program.
The UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, recently voiced concerns that Iranian intelligence might be hacking into their computers and cell phones, a revelation that has also prompted the EU to act.
with agency reports