Tue, May 24, 2011 - Page 6 News List

Syria, Iran in firing line as EU focuses on Mideast policy


The EU was set to tighten the noose on Syria and Iran yesterday when Europe mulls its next diplomatic moves to bolster change across North Africa and the Middle East.

Foreign ministers from the 27-state bloc will also look at ways forward in Libya as divisions emerge over an exit strategy, take a fresh look at the Middle East in the wake of US President Barack Obama’s new twist and look at aid to nations emerging from conflict.

As the death toll continued to mount in Syria, after over two months of protests, the EU ministers for the first time were to add the name of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to members of the regime targeted by a travel ban and assets freeze for involvement in the bloody crackdowns.

“The aim of the sanctions is to stop the violence and press Assad to agree to a process of reform, but not to force him to step down,” an EU diplomat said of the new measures to be announced at the two-day talks.

Tightening the screws on the Assad regime, the EU has already slapped an arms embargo as well as a visa ban and assets freeze against the president’s brother, four of his cousins and others in his inner circle.

Increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress in talks between world powers and Iran over its disputed nuclear program, the ministers will also agree a “significant expansion” in sanctions against Tehran.

Diplomats said more than 100 Iranian firms suspected of helping Tehran dodge international sanctions will be targeted. Among companies blacklisted is the European-Iranian Trade Bank (EIH), a German-based Iranian-owned bank believed to be involved in the Islamic republic’s disputed nuclear program.

Turning to Libya, the ministers are to seek how to inch forward, getting Libyan rebels and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to agree to a ceasefire that would include a retreat by regime forces to launch a political dialogue.

“Member states currently are less united in the belief that Qaddafi must go before a ceasefire or political talks can begin, but the rebel leadership will not budge on this point,” a diplomat said.

NATO aircraft have been pounding regime forces for two months and the alliance has vowed to keep up the pressure until Qaddafi stops attacking civilians and sends his troops back to their barracks.

An “important” statement is also expected in the wake of a landmark speech by Obama last week, saying a Palestinian state should be set up on the basis of the lines before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, as well as a recent unity deal between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas.

“The US is moving closer to the EU position,” an EU diplomat said. “We must now start to discuss a joint position on the issue of recognizing a Palestinian state.”

Ministers too will discuss ways of aiding the new pro-democracy regimes of Egypt and Tunisia, while looking at the turmoil in other parts of the Arab world, notably Bahrain and Yemen.

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