LUXEMBOURG – The European Union on Monday banned the sale of luxury goods and products to Syria that can have military as well as civilian uses.
The ban on luxury items appears to take direct aim at some of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s most loyal supporters: the business community and prosperous merchant classes that are key to propping up the regime. An influential bloc, the business leaders have long traded political freedoms for economic privileges in Syria.
So far, the wealthy classes have stuck to the sidelines, but if the economic squeeze reaches them, it could be a game changer, analysts say.
Assad, who inherited power in 2000, spent years shifting the country away from the socialism espoused by his father. In the process, he helped boost a new and vibrant merchant class that transformed Syria’s economic landscape even as the regime’s political trappings remained unchanged.
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said the EU’s 27 foreign ministers approved the new set of sanctions — the 14th in the past year — “because of deep concern about the situation and continuing violence in spite of the ceasefire.”
“We expect the government to withdraw all troops and heavy weapons from towns and cities (and) we want to make sure that the regime gives full access to humanitarian organizations.”
The U.N. estimates that more than 9,000 people have been killed since an uprising against the government of Assad began in Syria a year ago.
Previous rounds of U.S. and EU sanctions have done little to stop the bloodshed, although there are signs the Syrian economy is suffering. International measures against Assad’s regime have depleted its foreign currency reserves by half, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said last week.
EU experts will work out later precisely which goods will be included in the new embargo. One of the diplomats said so-called “dual-use” goods can include anything from vehicles to fertilizers and other chemicals.
The only precedent in international relations for the luxury ban is one imposed by the EU in 2007 on North Korea for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Officials said this could serve as a model for the same measure against Syria. That ban included foods such as caviar and truffles, high-quality wines and spirits, fashion accessories including bags and shoes, perfumes, crystal and silverware, and purebred horses.
The United Nations has sent an advance eight-person observer team to Syria to support a plan by international envoy Kofi Annan to end the country’s 13-month crisis. The U.N. has authorized a mission of 300 observers.
“We need to continue to intensify pressure on the Assad regime,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said. “They are not in complete compliance with the cease-fire provisions of the Annan plan.”
AP writer Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut contributed to this report.