European Union Tightens Sanctions on Syria

Beirut, Lebanon – The Syrian foreign minister said on Monday that an Arab League decision to suspend his country was “an extremely dangerous step” and apologized for a series of attacks on foreign embassies in the country over the weekend.

Walid al-Moallem, speaking at a televised press conference in Damascus, said that Syria had withdrawn its armed troops from urban areas, released political prisoners and offered pardons to militants under the terms of a proposed Arab League peace plan.

Damascus agreed to the peace plan on Nov. 2, but failed to comply with it and violence continued in the country with activists saying that more than 240 people were killed from the day the plan was announced until last week.

The majority of the deaths were in Homs, a restive city in central Syria that was subjected to a major military assault days after the peace initiative was announced.

The United Nations said this month that at least 3,500 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad started in March. But the government disputed the death toll and blamed the unrest on armed groups who the government said have killed more than 1,100 soldiers and police officers.

Mr. Moallem also played down any prospects of an international military intervention in Syria, like the NATO-led campaign against Libya that helped topple the government of Col. Moammar Qaddafi in August.

“The Libyan scenario will not be repeated,” Mr. Moallem said, adding that Western and Arab countries know that the cost to confront the Syrian military would be high. He also said that he was confident that Russia and China would continue to oppose any resolutions against Syria in the United Nations Security Council. Russia and China vetoed a decision in October against Syria in the United Nations.

Mr. Moallem said he regretted the attacks on the embassies and consulates of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and France by angry demonstrators that took place in Damascus and other cities on Saturday, shortly after the Arab League announced the suspension decision.

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“As for attacks on foreign embassies, as the foreign minister I apologize for these aggressions,” he said.

Mr. Moallem said that his government was organizing a national dialogue with opposition figures and other members of the Syrian society, who are represented by neither the government or the opposition.

Syria called Sunday for an emergency Arab League summit to discuss the political unrest and invited officials to visit the country before the suspension decision goes into effect on Nov. 16, to oversee the implementation of the Arab peace plan.

The European Union, meanwhile, sought to intensify pressure on Syria, imposing additional sanctions against some of the country’s citizens and restricting investment.

But foreign ministers meeting in Brussels said there were no plans to take military action against the government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus similar to the campaign that led to the overthrow and death of Libya’s former leader, Muammar el-Qaddafi.

“This is a different situation from Libya,” said William Hague, the British foreign secretary. “There is no United Nations Security Council resolution and Syria is a much more complex situation,” Mr. Hague said.

On Monday, foreign ministers agreed to freeze the assets of 18 Syrians and ban them from traveling to the European Union. The move brings the total number of Syrians affected by the restrictions to 74.

The ministers also stopped the European Investment Bank, a lender with a major focus on overseas development, from giving Syria additional loan payments and they halted other activities by the bank in Syria.

“It’s very important in the European Union that we consider additional measures to add to the pressure on the Assad regime to stop the unacceptable violence against the people of Syria,” said Mr. Hague.

The E.U. said it would keep the funds of 19 companies and institutions in Syria frozen. A European embargo on Syrian oil already devastated that sector, reducing oil production by as much as 75 percent. Syria’s oil exports represented anywhere from 15 to 35 percent of the state budget, and more than 90 percent of those exports went to Europe.

James Kanter contributed reporting from Brussels.