ROTTERDAM // Syria's president, Bashar al Assad, yesterday saw his close allies and several of his family members targeted by EU sanctions in response to his government's crackdown against its opponents.
But the president himself was given at least two weeks to end the violence before he too risks sanctions by the 27-nation European bloc.
"We are giving him a chance to turn the situation around, but if he does not react decisively we will have to extend the measures," said an EU source, who was not authorised to talk on this issue. The foreign ministers of the EU countries will evaluate the effect of the measures later this month.
An EU arms embargo against Syria as well as an asset freeze and visa ban for 13 officials went into effect yesterday. The United States had earlier imposed similar measures against three Syrian officials and has had a long-time arms embargo in place because it considers Syria a state sponsor of terrorism.
In a message that struck close to home, the EU placed the president's most influential brother, Maher al Assad, at the top of the sanctions list.
He was billed as "strongman of the Republican Guard; principal overseer of violence against demonstrators".
Also targeted were the new interior minister, Mohammad Ibrahim Al-Chaar, one of the appointments the president made in response to the crisis, and Rami Makhlouf.
Mr Makhlouf is the president's cousin and one of the wealthiest men in the country. The EU calls him a close associate of Maher al Assad and says that he "bankrolls the regime, allowing violence against demonstrators".
Large anti-government demonstrations started in Syria almost two months ago and have been met with a harsh, often violent, government response. Human rights organisations and activists estimate the civilian death toll at between 400 and 800 people but no independent confirmation is available. The government claims that just 70 people have died, as well as more than 70 soldiers and security personnel.
The government has deployed the army in cities across the country, putting tanks in the streets and making mass arrests. Activists reported more arrests yesterday in the cities of Banias and Homs, while tanks were said to be heading for the town of Hama - the scene of a massacre of anti-government insurgents in 1982, under Mr Assad's father, Hafez.
In a statement on Monday in which the sanctions were announced, the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, left no doubt about the EU's view of the events in Syria. "The EU measures respond to the escalation of the Syrian authorities' violent crackdown, including by military means, that has led to the killing, injury or arrest of Syrian citizens for their participation in peaceful protests," she said.
The EU's decision to spare Mr al Assad sanctions for now was met with scepticism among some observers. They questioned the premise on which it is based, namely that there are clear policy differences between the president and his inner circle and that he is struggling to be in control.
"Especially given what we have seen recently, I think that we have to assume that he is much more in control than what people give him credit for. And that he has very skilfully created the impression that he isn't," said Daniel Korski, of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
He said that the decision not to target the president at this point also reflected political disagreement among the EU members over the approach towards Syria. The northern states, on the whole, were in favour of a harder line, while the southern and Mediterranean countries favoured a more restrained policy.
A spokesperson for Ms Ashton denied that the bloc is slower to act against Syria than it was in the case of Libya. "Not all the countries are the same and not the same approach is required," said Maja Kocijancic. She noted that the measures in the case of Libya had been stepped up gradually.
But one major difference with Libya was the policy both on the part of the Obama administration in the US and on the part of some EU member states, notably France, to try to engage with the Syrian government in recent years. This had affected the European reaction, said Ms Kocijancic. "Obviously we were more engaged with Syria and we are drawing on this information. This lends itself to a more knowledgeable approach but this does not change that we want the violence ended and human rights respected."