EU backs Syrian opposition, ponders new sanctions

October 10, 2011 - 12:00 PM
Luxembourg EU Foreign Ministers

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe addresses the media after an EU Foreign Ministers meeting in Luxembourg, Monday Oct. 10, 2011. The European Union foreign policy chief says the EU is moving to widen its sanctions against Syria because of the continuing repression in the country. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

LUXEMBOURG (AP) — The European Union is intensifying its contacts with the nascent Syrian opposition at the same time that it is moving to widen sanctions against the regime of President Bashar Assad, whose ongoing crackdown on civilian protesters has killed nearly 3,000 people.

The outreach to the opposition suggests European officials are trying to get a sense of whether it could play an instrumental role in ousting the Assad regime, although diplomats said it was far too early to grant the opposition formal recognition as a legal representative of the Syrian people.

"I believe we have to get to know them better and get to know their intentions," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Monday in Luxembourg during a meeting of EU foreign ministers that assessed the opposition.

Earlier in the day, the newly formed Syrian National Council — a collection of opposition activists — said it has agreed on a democratic framework for a future nation and that it wants international observers to be allowed into the Arab state to examine the situation there.

Ghied Al Hashmy, a political scientist who participated in a conference of Syrian opposition members in Sweden, said the council opposes military intervention but wants more political pressure on Syria, such as the targeted economic sanctions the EU has been applying.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the bloc is planning to expand action against Syria. A third round of measures will be necessary, she said, especially after Assad's "disappointing" speech over the weekend in which he criticized alleged foreign intervention in the country.

An official said last week that Syria's largest commercial bank will be targeted in any new sanctions. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

The uprising against Assad began in mid-March amid a wave of anti-government protests in the Arab world that toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Assad has reacted with deadly force that the U.N. estimates has left some 2,900 people dead.

The Syrian National Council is a broad-based group that includes most major opposition factions.

No country or international body has yet recognized it as a legal representative of the Syrian people, and on Sunday Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem threatened "tough measures" against any country that does.

France and some European Union countries were quick to embrace Libya's National Transitional Council and throw political weight behind the rebel group as it eventually overthrew strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

But the Syrian opposition is far from achieving such backing just yet. Juppe said the Syrian opposition "does not have the same structure. So we are not at the stage of recognition."

Abdulbaset Sieda, a member of the Syrian National Council, told reporters in Stockholm that Assad's regime fears the new opposition group because it has "good contacts with the Arab world and our friends in the West."

Sieda dismissed the idea that the opposition is divided, although he acknowledged its members had a variety of views on how to achieve their goals.

"We will fight together against the regime because all of us agree that this regime belongs to the past," he said. "There are just some different opinions about the mechanism — in what way this should be done, and that we discussed here in Stockholm."

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Malin Rising reported from Stockholm.