SOPOT, Poland (Reuters) - European Union governments agreed on Friday to ban imports of Syrian oil and extended sanctions to seven new Syrian individuals and entities to intensify pressure on President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
The United States, the EU and other Western powers want Assad to end a violent five-month-old crackdown on pro-democracy protesters that the United Nations says has killed 2,000 civilians. But Assad shows no sign of heeding their calls for him to step down.
The EU has already banned Europeans from doing business with dozens of Syrian officials, government institutions and military-linked firms tied to the violence, but those measures seem to have had little influence on Assad’s policy.
Friday’s steps are the first time the EU has targeted Syrian industry and the key oil sector, but analysts say the sanctions, which do not go as far as the investment ban imposed by the United States last month, may have only a limited impact on Assad’s access to funds.
“In view of the gravity of the situation in Syria, the Council today further tightened the EU’s sanctions against that country,” EU governments said in a statement.
“The prohibition concerns purchase, import and transport of oil and other petroleum products from Syria,” they said.
Friday’s decision also expanded the list of people and entities subject to EU travel bans and asset freezes by seven, including four individuals.
The measures goes into effect on Saturday. But Italy has won an exemption on existing contracts, which can be fulfilled until November 15, underscoring divisions in Europe over energy sanctions which have slowed the implementation of economic measures against Assad.
Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja said such delays blunted the impact of sanctions.
“I feel (it) is too late,” he told reporters in the Polish resort of Sopot, where EU foreign ministers were holding policy discussions. “If we are serious, we should take any steps we take immediately,” he said.
Italy defended its demand for a grace period, with Foreign Minister Franco Frattini saying Italian firms needed time to adapt.
“It is a technical request,” Frattini told reporters. “Given that Italy imports 30 percent of all EU imports from Syria, we need ... some weeks to comply with these sanctions, which we support and which obviously Italy had always called for.”
Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal argued that the sanctions would apply real pressure.
“They will go straight to the heart of the regime. This will squeeze the regime,” he said, but added that what was required was a U.N. resolution and a tough stance towards Assad by the Arab League.
Firms such as Anglo-Dutch Royal Dutch Shell and France’s Total are significant investors in Syria.
Because of concerns in some capitals over risks to the commercial interests of European companies, the 27-country EU has tightened the screws on Syria incrementally.
EU countries are the main buyers of Syrian oil exports, but industry sources say that even when imports to Europe are blocked, European companies will continue operating within Syria until the EU imposes sanctions on all cooperation with Syrian energy firms.
So far, the threat of sanctions on Syria has had a limited impact on oil markets as the country exports just 150,000 barrels per day, out of around 400,000 bpd it produces.
EU diplomats say talks on further sanctions will continue in Brussels, including on a ban on European investments in Syria, but it is unclear if consensus can be found. EU decisions on sanctions are taken by unanimity.
Western powers are also concerned that the impact of economic measures against Syria may be blunted by a lack of international cooperation. Russia and China have resisted a push led by the United States and Europe for a U.N. Security Council resolution laying out more measures.
Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska and Ilona Wissenbach; Writing by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by David Brunnstrom and Rosalind Russell