The European Union is set to impose an arms embargo on Syria and will consider further sanctions against the regime in the coming days.
EU ambassadors met for emergency talks in Brussels last night to discuss possible measures against President Bashar al-Assad amid growing international condemnation of the killings of more than 500 demonstrators during recent uprisings.
But calls by France, Britain and Germany for a more robust and immediate response from the EU ran into opposition by Cyprus, which lies closer to Syria than any other EU country.
The trio are expected to renew their push for wider sanctions early next week in a bid to include a travel ban and the freezing of the bank accounts of President Assad, his extended family and senior members of his government. "It's a question of sending a political signal to Assad that the world is turning against him," one EU diplomat said.
This week, the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, called the government's actions "unacceptable" and demanded "strong measures" from the EU and United Nations. The Dutch Foreign Minister, Uri Rosenthal, said it was time to "get tough" with Syria. According to EU sources, the European Commission is also considering the suspension of aid worth €130m (£115m) and a freeze on €1.3bn in European investment funds. The funding was channelled into dozens of projects aimed at supporting the transformation of the country to a "social market economy", including the strengthening of civil society organisations.
The EU High Representative, Catherine Ashton, said in a statement after the meeting that the measures were intended to achieve "an immediate change of policy by the Syrian leadership."
She said: "The EU expresses its grave concern about the situation unfolding in Syria and the deployment of military and security forces in a number of Syrian cities."
Pierre Vimont, the secretary-general of the EU's diplomatic corps, said earlier: "I think there is broad consensus among member states that action is needed." However, a handful of countries, led by Austria, questioned the effectiveness of the sanctions. A far more stringent package of sanctions targeting the Libyan regime and its multibillion-dollar oil and gas industries was pushed through in February, but has seemingly done little to weaken Colonel Gaddafi's resolve. By contrast, the EU does very little trade with Syria.
"No one is under any illusions Syria will be harmed massively by this but it's the first step towards slowly isolating the regime," one EU diplomat said. Meanwhile, European diplomats are also working on isolating Syria from international bodies such as the United Nations. Last night, they lobbied to block Syria's unopposed candidacy to join the 47-nation UN Human Rights Council, during a UN meeting in Geneva.