BRUSSELS – The European Union on Monday tightened sanctions on Syria and required member nations to board ships and airplanes carrying suspicious cargo to the country, as foreign ministers warned that the escalating violence there was sparking a refugee crisis for its neighbors.
The 27 EU ministers added 29 names to an existing list of over 170 Syrian individuals and companies believed to be associated with the repression or benefiting from President Bashar Assad's regime. They also endorsed a plan to enforce the bloc's existing arms embargo, requiring inspections on the territory or in the territorial waters of EU states.
"Our decisions will strengthen sanctions against the Assad regime and also help neighboring countries, mainly Jordan and Lebanon, who will have to take in many of the refugees. We're doing both things," said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
The EU banned weapons exports to Syria in May, 2011. But until now, the 28 member nations had the right to decide whether or not to inspect cargos believed to be in breach of the embargo.
"Sanctions are part of this whole way of trying to put pressure on regime," said Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief. "They will prevent any arms from reaching Syria."
Syria's military arsenal is mainly of Soviet and Russian origin. Very little of its weaponry originates from Western nations, which makes it unlikely that the EU arms embargo will have a significant effect on the situation on the ground.
In January, a Russian ship that made an unscheduled stop in EU-member Cyprus while carrying tons of arms to Syria was allowed to continue its journey after changing its destination. And last month, another Russian-operated ship heading to Syria with a load of weapons turned back after its British insurer decided to remove the vessel's coverage.
In addition to being Syria's main arms supplier, Russia also has protected its longtime ally from any punitive action by the United Nations Security Council. Last week, Russia and China again vetoed a Western-backed U.N. resolution threatening Assad's regime with sanctions — the third such double veto of a U.N. motion addressing the crisis.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday that forcefully ousting Assad would only fuel a protracted civil war in the country, a signal Moscow has no intention of ending its patronage of its last remaining Middle East ally despite an international outcry.
"If the Syrian leadership is ousted from power by unconstitutional means, the leadership and the opposition will trade places and the civil war will continue," Putin told reporters following talks with Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti at Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi. Putin said Syria's "future should be decided not on the basis of a military victory or defeat of one parties, but on the basis of talks and compromise."
The United Nations said last week that the number of Syrian refugees who have sought help from it since April has almost tripled to 112,000. The U.N. refugee agency said women and children make up three-quarters of the Syrians who it has registered or assisted in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
"We're supporting and working with them," Ashton said, referring to the four countries.
Fabius and British Foreign Secretary William Hague both called for more assistance for refugees. The Arab League on Monday promised $100 million for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries and called on the U.N. to set up safe havens for them inside the country.
"The EU remains deeply concerned about the spill-over effects of the Syrian crisis in neighboring countries in terms of security and stability," said a statement released at the meeting.
Separately, Russia's Aeroflot said Monday it is suspending flights to Syria's capital Damascus starting Aug. 6 for commercial reasons. The state-controlled airline has four flights to Damascus and is the only Russian airline currently operating direct Moscow-Damascus flights.
Vladimir Isachenkov and Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report from Moscow.