The EU beefed up sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime on Monday and agreed to tighten an arms embargo by inspecting vessels and planes suspected of carrying arms, diplomats said, as the Syrian National Council said fighting in cities across the country was a sign the opposition was at the “gates of victory.”
Foreign ministers from the 27-nation bloc began talks with an agreement to freeze the assets of 26 Syrians and three firms close to the Assad regime in the 17th round of sanctions since protests erupted in March 2011.
They will be added to an existing EU blacklist of 129 people and 49 entities, according to AFP.
European Union member states will also board planes and ships believed to be carrying arms or goods used by Damascus to put down protests, tightening a ban in May last year on arms and material that might be used for internal repression.
Should a member of the EU suspect a vessel in its territorial waters to be carrying suspect cargo for Syria, it will be obliged to send inspectors. The same principle would be applied to air cargo.
In addition, under new embargo rules, EU governments will be required to search airplanes and ships suspected of carrying weapons or other banned equipment into Syria.
“These sanctions are important because they will allow ships to be examined to see what cargo they’re carrying, and that will prevent, I hope, any arms reaching Syria,” said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton before the meeting.
As fighting intensifies in Syria, also high on the agenda of Monday’s talks will be how to prepare for a potential humanitarian crisis on Europe’s doorstep.
Meanwhile, the Syrian National Council sounded a defiant note in an overnight statement, saying fierce clashes in cities across the country were a sign the opposition was “at the gates of victory.”
SNC spokesman George Sabra said in the statement the heavy fighting that has broken out in Damascus and the country’s second city Aleppo in recent days was an important sign of rebel progress.
“What is happening in Damascus and Aleppo and other Syrian towns in recent days is a crucial step to establish a new phase of history in our country and the region as well,” he said, according to AFP.
“This is a message provided by the revolution to the people that says very clearly that the regime is going to its inevitable end.”
Sabra called on the Syrian population to back the rebels, urging that to do their best “to facilitate the new birth of their nation after the fall of tyranny,”
Addressing the “heroes of the Free Syrian Army,” he said “towns and villages are waiting” for them to provide “security, freedom and dignity.”
“The National Council supports your steps... and promises you it will not betray the revolution,” he added.
But he acknowledged that difficult days lay ahead for the rebel forces, composed of civilians who have taken up arms and soldiers who have deserted from the Syrian regime’s ranks.
“The criminals envision another round of bloody violence,” he said. “The regime is wobbling, but it will not surrender easily.”
“The last step could be very dangerous. We are at the gates of victory.”